Jury deliberations begin in Turlock murder trial’s sanity phase

08/15/2014 4:46 PM

08/15/2014 6:15 PM

Three forensic psychologists determined a defendant knew it was wrong when he stabbed to death a man before he set the victim’s car on fire in Turlock, a prosecutor told a jury Friday in the sanity phase of a murder trial.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Houston said the defense failed to meet its burden of proof, because it’s obvious from the testimony that Nicholas John Harris was not suffering from a mental illness when he stabbed Mark Anthony Henson.

Attorney Steven O’Connor argued that Harris has bipolar disorder and the mental disease caused him to believe that Henson was stalking his girlfriend. He said his client believed he was acting in self defense.

“In his own crazy mind, Mr. Harris thought he was dealing with a threat,” O’Connor told the jury.

The jury of nine women and three men began deliberations shortly before 2:30 p.m. Friday. They did not reach a verdict by the end of the day. They are expected to resume deliberations Tuesday.

In June, the same jury found Harris guilty of second-degree murder and arson in Henson’s death. Now, the jurors have to unanimously decide whether Harris was suffering from mental illness when he stabbed Henson and burned his car.

In the guilt phase of the trial, the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Harris committed the crimes.

The burden of proof is lesser in the sanity phase. The defense has to prove that it’s more likely than not that Harris was insane when he committed the crimes.

“You don’t have to be absolutely convinced that he’s insane,” O’Connor told the jurors.

He also cautioned the jurors not to consider what will happen to Harris if they determine he is not guilty by reason of insanity. If that happens, the defense attorney said, his client would be sent to a medical facility for treatment until the court deems him safe for release. “You’re not letting him off,” O’Connor said.

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.

Harris then set Henson’s car on fire as the injured man staggered down the street looking for help. Henson died later at a hospital. Harris burned his head while starting the fire and ran home.

O’Connor argued that the defendant knew the arson was wrong, but he did not know the stabbing was wrong at the time. The jury will make a decision on each crime individually.

The prosecutor told the jurors that Harris tried to hide his identity, conceal the gasoline he would later use to start the fire and avoid a potential witness on a nearby porch. Houston said those were factors the psychologists used to determine Harris was not mentally ill when he committed murder and arson.

Psychologist Phil Trompetter, who has testified for prosecutors many times before, testified that Harris suffered from a bipolar disorder. Houston argued that Trompetter, who was hired by the defense, didn’t believe that the mental disease didn’t affect Harris’ ability to know what he was doing was wrong, which is required to produce an insanity verdict.

Two court-appointed psychologists evaluated Harris and determined he did not suffer from a mental disease. Even if Harris was suffering from mental illness, the psychologists told the jury, the defendant’s actions and statements show he knew what he was doing was wrong.

O’Connor argued that Harris’ family testified that the defendant showed symptoms of mental illness in his late teens that worsened as his reality blurred with the make-believe world of video games.

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