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Placerville wife accused of murdering husband drops suicide theory

Colleen Ann Harris, 73, who is on trial in the murder of a husband, leaves for a lunch break after taking the stand Wednesday at El Dorado Superior Court in Placerville.
Colleen Ann Harris, 73, who is on trial in the murder of a husband, leaves for a lunch break after taking the stand Wednesday at El Dorado Superior Court in Placerville. rbyer@sacbee.com

In statements to detectives after her husband’s shooting death, Colleen Harris suggested that she feared Robert “Bob” Harris was suicidal after she had texted his daughter about his extramarital affair in January 2013.

In her first two days of court testimony in her murder trial, she suggested multiple times that the former U.S. Forest Service supervisor likely took his own life. She described it as a wrenching event that caused her to black out as it happened.

Yet Wednesday, near the conclusion of 21/2 days of testifying in her own defense, Harris abruptly changed course.

She testified that Bob Harris, 72, didn’t kill himself and, instead, his death was the result of a horrible gun accident. Her reversal came as prosecutor Joe Alexander questioned her for a second time shortly before noon.

“Is it your belief that Bob was killed as part of an accident,” Alexander asked Harris, 73.

“Yes,” she answered.

“So it wasn’t suicide?” Alexander asked.

“No,” she answered.

The prosecutor came back at Harris again in the afternoon, getting her to say she also didn’t shoot her husband in an act of self-defense.

“You’re not claiming that you pulled that trigger in self-defense because he attacked you?” Alexander asked.

“No,” Colleen replied.

During the trial, she has insisted that she never pulled the trigger on her husband. But under withering cross-examination from Alexander on Tuesday, she waffled on whether she was ever in possession of the gun, first saying she didn’t know and later that “I guess I was.”

Harris, a Placerville land surveyor known to her extended family as “Grandma Cokie,” is being tried for murder in the same courthouse where she was acquitted of killing a previous husband in 1986. In that case, a jury accepted her argument that she was an abuse victim who acted in self-defense when she killed James Batten, 46, with a shotgun in 1985.

Colleen Harris told detectives after her 2013 arrest that Bob wasn’t acting like himself before his death. She said he was distraught and felt his reputation had been ruined by a romantic affair he had with a 34-year-old teacher and doctoral candidate while doing conservation work in Mongolia.

“Bob is very image-conscious,” she said in the videotaped interview shown earlier in the trial. “I would be very worried he would do something to himself.”

She later testified in court that Bob flew into a fury after Colleen texted his daughter on Jan. 5, 2013, about a phone call her husband had just made to his paramour. She said she went into their bedroom to console him, only to discover – in pitch darkness – that Bob had a shotgun.

“I said, ‘Bob, what are you doing? Why do have this gun with you?’” Colleen testified last week. “I thought he was going to kill himself. Is he going to kill me?”

She testified Tuesday that she blacked out after grappling for the gun – and never heard the shot or could recall Bob Harris’ moment of death.

Defense lawyer David Weiner, who won Colleen’s acquittal in the previous murder case, has presented Bob Harris’ death as a mystery that may well have been suicide or an unintentional event.

“What happened in that room is what this trial is about,” Weiner said in his opening trial statement to jurors last week. “It is what you’re here to decide. Homicide? Suicide? Or a murder?”

On Wednesday, as Colleen Harris seemed to eliminate one of those possibilities, Weiner tried to address her evolving memory by focusing on her trauma after the event.

Under questioning from the defense lawyer, Colleen said she had 25 sessions with a psychiatrist to help sort out her memories after she was arrested.

“He helped me verbalize a lot of thoughts were jumbled around in my head,” Colleen testified. “I was in a fog. He helped me deal with some grief that was going on.”

She said she was “trying to remember what took place, everything that had been going on with the whole incident.”

The psychiatrist, Dr. Norman Tresser, had been an expert witness for the defense when then-Colleen Batten was acquitted in 1986.

Before the current trial, Judge Kenneth J. Melikian ruled there was to be no mention of Tresser because the psychiatrist cannot be cross-examined by the prosecution because he is in failing health and unable to testify.

But Colleen Harris on Tuesday had blurted out the name of the doctor when Alexander was challenging her about gaps in her memory. “I had several sessions with Dr. Tresser, and he kept helping me to open up, get my memory back,” she said.

Over prosecution objections, Melikian ruled Wednesday that the defense could ask limited follow-up questions about Colleen meeting with the doctor – but not on any specific discussions in their sessions. However, the judge said the jury would be instructed that she “disobeyed the court order” by bringing up the psychiatrist.

On Wednesday, Weiner attempted to draw his client back to what she remembered about Bob Harris’ death. She repeated her story about grappling for the shotgun, saying she was just trying to push the gun barrel away in the darkness.

“There were a lot of thoughts going through my mind. I just wanted that gun out of the picture,” she testified. “I wasn’t thinking of harm.”

“Did you intend to kill him?” Weiner asked.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “He had been the love of my life.”

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

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