Sanity phase of Turlock murder trial begins

08/12/2014 7:03 PM

08/12/2014 7:05 PM

A defense attorney on Tuesday told a jury that his client had symptoms of mental illness in his late teens that worsened until his life became “unraveled” six years ago.

Attorney Steven O’Connor argued that Nicholas John Harris believed in his mind that he was on a special mission the night he set out to burn Mark Anthony Henson’s car in Turlock.

Rather than just starting the fire, Harris stabbed Henson to death. O’Connor said in court that his client’s mental state that night led him to believe he was defending himself.

“He did not know what he was doing was wrong,” O’Connor told the jurors.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Houston told the jury that two psychologists will testify that Harris was not suffering from mental illness when he stabbed Henson. The prosecutor argued that the defendant explained in detailed fashion his plan that night and how he attacked Henson.

In June, a jury found Harris guilty of second-degree murder and arson in the death of Henson. The same jury that convicted Harris returned to the courtroom Tuesday. The jurors will hear testimony and arguments before deciding whether Harris was suffering from mental illness when he stabbed Henson and burned his car.

The stabbing occurred Aug. 12, 2008, in a neighborhood a few blocks east of California State University, Stanislaus. The prosecutor argued in the trial that Harris wanted to eliminate the man he believed had been bothering his then-girlfriend over the previous few weeks.

Harris found Henson sleeping in the front seat of his Mitsubishi. Henson woke up, and Harris walked around the car. The defendant testified that he pulled out his knife as he approached Henson, who was still seated in the car. A struggle ensued. The prosecutor told the jury that Harris repeatedly stabbed Henson in the back.

The attorneys gave their opening statements in the trial’s sanity phase Tuesday morning.

O’Connor argued this his client, at one point, believed gardeners in his neighborhood were trying to kill him. “That was (Harris’) belief, his paranoid belief,” he said.

He told the jury that psychologist Phil Trompetter, who has testified for prosecutors many times before, will testify in this trial that Harris suffered from a classic case of bipolar disorder.

The prosecutor argued that Trompetter was hired by the defense to evaluate the defendant. Houston said Trompetter also will testify that the mental disorder did not prevent Harris from knowing what he was doing was wrong.

Tamara Harris, the defendant’s mother, testified Tuesday afternoon that her son

suffered from depression, so the family had him evaluated by a psychologist.

The psychologist suggested that the teenager be treated with Depakote, which is used to treat manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder. But Harris’ mother declined, because she didn’t want her son on drugs.

The defendant was prescribed Depakote while in jail last fall. Tamara Harris testified that her son’s behavior has improved. She says he now can have normal conversations with her rather than talking over other people. She also says her son now has more organized thoughts.

In his early 20s, Harris told a doctor that he was suicidal. The defendant’s parents took him to Stanislaus County Behavioral Health & Recovery Services to be evaluated, but Harris now claims he was not suicidal.

“I wish we would’ve been more assertive about it,” the defendant’s mother said about her son’s suicidal thoughts.

During cross-examination, Tamara Harris said she didn’t notice any bizarre behavior when she saw her son hours before the slaying. She saw him the following day, after her son had shaved off his hair and his head was red.

The prosecutor asked her whether she remembered seeing a video of her son telling an investigator, “It’s a gruesome thing I did, no doubt.” She said she might remember that, but she wasn’t sure. She did remember referring to Henson’s death as an “atrocity.”

When asked whether her testimony was in part her being a good mother, she said, “We’re sticking beside him, because we believe in his side of the story.”

Testimony in the trial’s sanity phase is expected to continue today in Stanislaus Superior Court.

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