In 1990, when his father was about to remarry, Andy Harris’ grandmother took him aside and told him there was something he should know about his stepmother-to-be.
Four years earlier, the grandmother told him, Colleen Ann Batten had been tried for murder in the shotgun killing of her first husband, James Batten. It was a sensational murder mystery, played out in 1986 in a Placerville courtroom as a trial headline in the local Mountain Democrat asked the question, “Colleen Batten – murderess or martyr?” The jury found her not guilty.
Andy Harris, now 51 and an attorney in Grass Valley, said he questioned his father, Robert Edward “Bob” Harris, a U.S. Forest Service supervisor, avid baseball umpire, traveler and conservationist. He said his dad had known Colleen as a high school teenager in Oakland and that they had reunited decades later.
Bob Harris told his son that Colleen had a “hard life,” that the shooting of her husband was “unfortunate.” But he said he cherished her and was determined to marry her. “He said, ‘I love her, and I want to provide for her.’ That was basically his response,” Andy Harris said. “That was about as much as he wanted to talk about it.”
Now Colleen Ann Harris – the former Colleen Batten – is facing a second murder trial for the shotgun killing of another husband.
Twenty-nine years after her first trial, the diminutive 72-year-old woman is the center of attention in a hard-to-fathom encore in the old marble courthouse in downtown Placerville. She is charged with gunning down Harris, 72, with a 12-gauge in January 2013 on the same rustic Placerville property on Wilderness Court where her previous husband, James Batten, 46, was shot dead in 1985.
Despite Colleen Batten’s acquittal in the first case, prosecutors say stark similarities exist between the distant events – each resulting in a dead husband and wife claiming amnesia.
“In each case, she kills her husband in the bedroom. In each case, she uses a shotgun,” said El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Joe Alexander, arguing in court papers for introducing evidence from the earlier shooting in Colleen Harris’ current trial. “In each case, she is going through marital difficulties. In each case, she delays reporting the crime ... In each case she claims a loss of memory as a defense.”
The new case, expected to open Wednesday, is stirring grief and anguish for two families whose adult children had come together in 1990 to celebrate the nuptials of Bob and Colleen Harris.
Colleen’s two daughters and son served as co-best men and maids of honor for the ceremony along with Andy Harris, his younger brother Scott Harris, now a university professor, and older sister Pam Stirling, now a Los Angeles police detective. Colleen Harris, who worked as a land surveyor, became known as “Grandma Cokie” to Bob Harris’ five grandchildren.
Now, “There is an overall sense of loss,” Andy Harris said. “The death of your father is devastating enough. And then there is the person who is brought into your family and loved as a family member. There is a real sense of betrayal and wondering if this person had the capacity to love.”
In 1986, Colleen Batten was acquitted of murder after defense lawyer David Weiner successfully argued that she acted in self-defense against an abusive husband, whom she was divorcing.
Colleen Batten testified during the trial that she didn’t remember killing James Batten. An expert defense witness testified that she had blacked out after the killing in an episode of “psychogenic amnesia.”
However, she said she remembered that her husband, before she shot him, had held a pistol to her head, threatened to kill her and sexually assaulted her. She also testified that Batten had told her he had abused a daughter from a previous marriage for more than a decade.
During the 1986 trial, the chief assistant district attorney, Walt Miller, said Batten shot her husband with a .410-bore shotgun as he was reading a newspaper in bed. Miller said she then finished him with a second round at close range, before planting a pistol on the bed to make it appear as a self-defense killing. He said she waited an hour before calling the Sheriff’s Office, telling a dispatcher, “I think I just shot my husband” before later claiming no memory of doing so.
Attorney Eric Schlueter, who is assisting Weiner in Harris’ latest murder defense, said “Mrs. Harris has led a blame-free life” since the previous killing and that bringing up the former case in her current trial is “inherently prejudicial.”
“The prior incident has ZERO relevance to the current action,” Schlueter wrote in court papers, adding, “especially in light of the fact that Mrs. Harris was ACQUITTED of the charge.” However, Judge Kenneth J. Melikian ruled that prosecutors may introduce the circumstances of the former case.
The unusual trial comes in the same courtroom where Melikian last year presided over the lurid murder trial of Todd Winkler, a former Air Force fighter pilot with two dead wives.
That trial drew national media attention as prosecutors drew parallels to Winkler murdering his wife, Rachel, with a pair of scissors in their Cameron Park home in 2012 to the death of his previous wife, Catherine, in a fiery 1999 Georgia car crash. Winkler, who survived the crash, wasn’t charged in the previous incident. But Melikian allowed testimony suggesting that he may have staged the accident for insurance money.
After Bob Harris’ death, stunned neighbors on Wilderness Court in Placerville said they had heard only sketchy details of some incident resulting in the death of Colleen Harris’ previous husband. In interviews in 2013, they described Colleen as an energetic community taskmaster who would get residents to pony up money for road paving, mailboxes and other community projects.
Colleen, who has been in custody since her January arrest, was also a consummate handywoman who ran a surveying business out of her home. Bob Harris had joined her in the surveying venture after his retirement as the U.S. Forest Service’s Tahoe Basin supervisor.
“Colleen was constantly building different things, sheds and decks. She liked to work with her hands,” Andy Harris said. “And she and Dad had the surveying company for several years. They seemed to enjoy being outdoors and running around with their (surveying) chains and rods.”
Harris said his father, a civil engineer with a master’s degree in public policy, was an avid backpacker and fisherman who found his life’s calling in conservation. At the Forest Service, Bob Harris was instrumental in creating Taylor Creek Visitor Center, an educational facility whose aquarium-like windows provided an up-close look at salmon and wildlife habitat.
He sponsored visiting exchange students from Mongolia who traveled to Lake Tahoe to study environmental conservation and forest management. In retirement, Bob Harris also traveled to Mongolia to work on conservation projects there.
But there was trouble in the Harris marriage. In 2004, the couple divorced only to remarry a year later.
Then, in 2012, on an extended visit to Mongolia, Harris became romantically involved with another woman. Andy Harris said there was friction between his father and Colleen Harris after he came back. The couple separated.
Though he moved to South Lake Tahoe, Bob Harris came back to care for Colleen after she had hip-replacement surgery. As she recovered in November 2012, they hosted an extended family Thanksgiving at the Placerville home. And a healing Colleen Harris later joined Bob Harris in visiting Andy’s family on Christmas Day, having moved from the couch to a walker to strutting proudly in high heels.
“My dad, bless his heart, was there taking care of Colleen despite whatever circumstances were going on between them,” Andy Harris said.
In the prosecution’s “statement of facts,” Alexander said Colleen Harris caught her husband making a phone call to his overseas love interest on Jan. 5, 2013, when Bob Harris was staying at the Placerville home. He said Colleen Harris went into the bedroom where he was sleeping later that night or early Jan. 6, “and shot him in the head with a 12-gauge short barrel shotgun as he slept. The victim was killed instantly.”
Alexander said Colleen Harris told investigators that she recalled her husband having “a bloody nose” in his sleep. At one point, when told that her husband had been dead for many hours, Alexander said Harris responded: “Oh, my God ... You’re joking right?” He said she described being in “a gray fog” but insisted she would never shoot her husband.
The prosecutor said Colleen Harris drove to San Francisco after the killing. There, Alexander said in court documents, she stashed her husband’s cellphone and .22-caliber handgun and a coin collection, which filled two plastic bins, in her son’s garage. Authorities believe she returned home hours later and then called Weiner to tell the lawyer who won her previous acquittal that another husband was dead.
Weiner notified the Sheriff’s Office and, once again, began working on her defense.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.