The defense of Colleen Ann Harris began Wednesday as her lawyer portrayed her as a woman betrayed and hurt by a husband who was “Mr. Everything.”
Attorney David Weiner told jurors that Colleen Harris isn’t the calculating killer the prosecution says she is. And he said the brutal shotgun slaying of her husband, Robert Edward “Bob” Harris, 72, in their marital bedroom may not have been a murder at all.
“What happened in that room is what this trial is about,” Weiner said in his opening trial statement, which he waited to deliver until after the prosecution rested its case. “It is what you’re here to decide. Homicide? Suicide? Or a murder?
“I am going to leave that for her to tell you what happened that day.”
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Colleen Harris, 72, is due to take the stand Thursday to discuss the violent January 2013 death of Bob Harris, a former U.S. Forest Service Tahoe Basin Management Unit supervisor, avid baseball umpire and globetrotting conservationist.
Her trial has piqued interest because of her earlier acquittal in a 1985 shotgun killing of a former husband, James Batten, 46. Wednesday’s session was further stirred by new testimony that Colleen, many years earlier, had directed a pistol at yet another husband.
Weiner presented Colleen’s daughter, Tawnie Black, to testify about years of wrenching abuse she suffered at the hands of Batten, Colleen’s second husband and Black’s stepfather. Black was a key witness when her mother was acquitted of murdering Batten in 1986.
But Wednesday, prosecutor Joe Alexander cross-examined Black over her filing for a restraining order against her mother in 2003. In a declaration that year, Black said Colleen cursed her with a sexual slur and told her not to tell police what Batten had done after learning he had sexually abused Black when she was 16. Batten was never charged with abuse.
Black acknowledged Wednesday that she wrote in the same declaration that she saw Colleen pull a shotgun many years earlier on her first husband and Black’s father, Larry Dodge.
Sobbing in court, Black came to the defense of her mother. “My mother is wonderful,” she testified Wednesday. “She is protective. ... She makes you believe in yourself. I would want my mom to raise my kids if I wasn’t here. She is that kind of woman.”
Saying he will present evidence to convince jurors that Colleen is “not guilty of the murder of Robert Harris,” Weiner drew parallels between the circumstances of Batten’s death and Bob Harris’ killing.
He described both husbands as having betrayed Colleen by having extramarital affairs. He also suggested each man was upset over the potential financial terms of a divorce.
“This case is about love,” said Weiner, Colleen’s lawyer in both murder trials. “But it’s also about betrayal. And it’s about survival – survival in the most basic, instinctive ways we know.”
He didn’t lay out a defense theory as to how Bob Harris died. But he described Bob as a man renowned for his incessant local volunteerism, as well as someone obsessed with his image and his legacy. He described Bob as furious after Colleen texted his adult daughter Jan. 5, 2013, about a call Bob made to his extramarital lover in Mongolia.
Alexander, the prosecutor, previously said Colleen shot Bob Harris in a lovesick rage over his affair with the 34-year-old teacher he met doing volunteer work in Mongolia for the Tahoe Baikal Institute, a conservation group.
But Weiner suggested it was Bob Harris who acted out in anger.
“Bob flew into a rage that evening,” Weiner told jurors. “And from his bubbly personality, there was a completely different individual.” He said Bob Harris grabbed his wife’s cellphone and threw it down after learning she had texted his daughter.
“He screamed at her,” Weiner said. “He told her, ‘You betrayed me.’ ” The attorney said Bob Harris then cursed and slammed the door on his wife.
Bob Harris’ body was found Jan. 6, 2013. Authorities say he was shot with a 12-gauge shotgun just below the left ear as he slept, with the blast blowing out much of his face. A forensic scientist called by the prosecution said the direction of the wound and the position of Harris’ body appeared to rule out suicide.
But Weiner seemed to suggest otherwise.
He acknowledged his client cleaned up after the killing, wiping tissue and blood spatter off the ceiling. Yet he described her as a dutiful wife, not a killer, who witnessed something horrible.
Weiner said Colleen tried to make it look a little less awful by also making the bed and moving Bob Harris’ left arm, placing his hand gently over his heart.
When she takes the witness stand, he said, “She will describe ... her emotional and mental state and the effect on her of having been present at the time her husband’s face ended up in a bloody mess.”
Editor’s note (April 2): This story has been updated to state that Tawnie Black in a 2003 declaration said her mother pulled a shotgun on Larry Dodge, not a pistol.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.