Crime - Sacto 911

Placerville woman charged with murder has hazy memory of husband’s final night

Colleen Harris, in a Placerville courtroom last week, is facing trial in El Dorado Superior Court for the January 2013 shotgun killing of her husband, Bob Harris, a former U.S. Forest Service supervisor. Harris was acquitted of murder in 1986 in the same courthouse, where she claimed self-defense in the shotgun killing of a former husband, James Batten.
Colleen Harris, in a Placerville courtroom last week, is facing trial in El Dorado Superior Court for the January 2013 shotgun killing of her husband, Bob Harris, a former U.S. Forest Service supervisor. Harris was acquitted of murder in 1986 in the same courthouse, where she claimed self-defense in the shotgun killing of a former husband, James Batten. lsterling@sacbee.com

In a daylong search through her fractured memory, Colleen Harris recalled on the witness stand Tuesday that she had lain in bed next to her dead husband, planning to kill herself.

But as prosecutor Joe Alexander displayed the gun in court that authorities say was used to kill her husband, Colleen flip-flopped on whether she had held the weapon. And she adamantly denied she pulled the trigger on her husband.

In her second full day of testimony, the 73-year-old woman known to family as “Grandma Cokie” acknowledged she was the only one with her husband, Robert “Bob” Harris, when he died. She also said she didn’t call an ambulance or authorities and took off the morning afterward on Jan. 6, 2013.

She testified that she drove all the way to San Francisco to stash belongings, including his beloved coin collection, in her son’s garage. She said that she knew to do that because the last time one of her husbands was shot dead, someone burglarized her house after she was arrested.

The Placerville land surveyor said she returned home from San Francisco to wrap her arms around Bob Harris, a 72-year-old retired U.S. Forest Service supervisor. The shotgun that killed him was still on the bed. She contemplated joining Bob in death.

“I was going to end my life,” she said.

She added: “It was all my fault.”

But Colleen Harris didn’t say exactly what she was at fault for. She said she decided to live – for her children – and insisted she didn’t kill Bob Harris.

Her defense attorney, David Weiner, suggested in court last week that Bob Harris may have committed suicide. But Alexander bored into Colleen with questions Tuesday on whether it was Colleen – and not Bob – who had held the shotgun as he died.

“Did you have the gun in your hands?” asked the El Dorado County deputy district attorney.

“I don’t know for sure,” Colleen answered.

Hours later, Alexander dramatically finished the day – and his questioning – by gripping and raising the shotgun.

“The truth is, Mrs. Harris, you were holding this gun when Bob Harris was killed,” Alexander said.

“I guess I was,” she said.

“You went in with this gun and held it to the back of his head,” the prosecutor continued.

“I did no such thing,” she answered.

“And that gun went off and blew off the front of Bob’s face?” Alexander asked.

“I did not do that,” she said.

In the same courthouse nearly 30 years ago, Colleen Harris was acquitted on a claim of self-defense of murdering her second husband, James Batten, 46, after the defense argued he sexually abused her. Weiner also represented her in that trial.

Last week, Colleen Harris testified that Bob flew into a rage after she texted his adult daughter about a phone call he made to a woman in Mongolia with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Colleen said she later went into the bedroom to try to smooth things over and discovered – in the darkness – that Bob had a shotgun.

Alexander challenged her explanation that Bob cursed her and shoved her away with what appeared to be the butt of the gun before she found him dead.

After first saying she didn’t recall having the gun in her hand, Colleen described a violent blow to her chest, saying, “I felt something ... really hard – like a sledge hammer hit me.”

Harris said she then temporarily blacked out.

“You didn’t hear the shotgun go off,” Alexander asked her.

“No,” she said.

She said she came to, finding her husband silent, and noticing blood on his pillow.

A forensic expert testified earlier for the prosecution that the physical evidence was inconsistent with suicide because the blast wasn’t a contact wound, meaning that Bob Harris would have had to have awkwardly held the gun away from his body. He was shot from beneath his left ear, with the blast exiting out his face.

Questioning Colleen, Alexander pushed her on the fact that Bob’s arms were weak from age and injury. His right arm was weakened from elbow-replacement surgery and his left tingled with pain due to compressed discs in his neck.

Colleen said that was true. But she also said she had never seen Bob so enraged in their 22 years of marriage. She described him heaving her cellphone to the floor after noticing Colleen had texted Bob’s daughter.

She said he violently shoved her in the living room and again in the bedroom. And then, some time later, he was dead. She repeated her previous testimony that she first thought it was a nose bleed – until she turned on the light.

“At that time, you knew that Bob was absolutely dead?” Alexander asked.

“I did,” Colleen responded.

The prosecutor asked her how she knew.

“I knew half his head was blown off.”

Alexander’s probing of Colleen Harris’ memory extended to questions about the killing of James Batten.

He asked her why she didn’t tell responding officers in 1985 that Batten had held a pistol to her head and had sexually assaulted her before his killing. That was her testimony in her 1986 trial and again in her current trial last week.

Harris said she didn’t remember what she told the officers back then, adding: “I don’t remember the trial.”

She also testified she had no memory of James Batten’s moment of death.

“Would it be fair to say your memory comes and goes when you’re talking about offenses you don’t want to talk about?” Alexander asked at another juncture.

“At the time when I’m confronted with disaster, I’ve discovered that my mind does shut down,” she said.

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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