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Prosecution portrays Placerville grandmother as ‘cold, calculating’ killer

Colleen Harris is led out of the courtroom at the El Dorado Superior Courthouse in Placerville earlier this month. She is on trial in the shotgun slaying of her husband.
Colleen Harris is led out of the courtroom at the El Dorado Superior Courthouse in Placerville earlier this month. She is on trial in the shotgun slaying of her husband. lsterling@sacbee.com

Colleen Harris, 73, insisted during her trial that she couldn’t recall the horrible moment of her husband’s death – when the shotgun blast ripped out his face – because of the “gray fog” of amnesia.

In a blistering closing argument Tuesday, a prosecutor attacked the Placerville grandmother’s blackout claim and her shifting explanations for the 2013 shooting of her third husband, retired U.S. Forest Service supervisor and globetrotting conservationist Robert “Bob” Harris, 72.

Colleen Harris, a land surveyor known to her extended family as “Grandma Cokie,” testified during her 2½ days on the witness stand that she never heard a shot and only turned on the light to make the gruesome discovery of his body because she thought he had a nosebleed.

But El Dorado County prosecutor Joe Alexander cast Colleen Harris as a fully aware, “cold, calculating” killer who murdered her husband with a 12-gauge shotgun in a last act of romantic obsession.

Alexander portrayed her as a woman desperate because her husband had an affair with a 34-year-old teacher while doing conservation work in Mongolia. He said Colleen Harris sent an emotional text to Bob’s grown daughter, declaring that he had just made a phone call to his paramour on January 5, 2013.

Then, Alexander said: “The defendant shot her husband … because she loved him. She was obsessed with the idea she was going to lose him.”

Graphically describing Bob Harris’ final moments, Alexander said Colleen “entered the room with a shotgun. She aimed it as Bob lay sleeping. … She put a finger on the trigger – and pulled that trigger.”

Jurors in Harris’ trial are to decide whether she is guilty or not of first-degree murder or lesser charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.

Defense attorney David Weiner, who is scheduled to present his closing argument to jurors Wednesday, has argued that Harris was indeed traumatized to the point of blackouts – not just from the shotgun deaths of one husband, but two.

During the defense case, Weiner had offered Bob Harris’ death in the master bedroom of their home on Wilderness Court as a mystery to be explained by Colleen. He told jurors in his opening statement: “What happened in that room is what this trial is about. It is what you’re here to decide. Homicide? Suicide? Or a Murder?”

Three decades ago, Colleen claimed similar memory loss in another sensational trial after the second of her three husbands, James Batten, 46, was gunned down with a different shotgun in 1985.

In that trial, held in the same downtown Placerville courthouse, then-Colleen Batten testified she didn’t remember the events when James Batten was killed in bed from two blasts from an .810-bore shotgun. She was acquitted of murder after the defense argued she acted in self-defense after being sexually assaulted with a pistol to her head.

During her current trial, Colleen testified that she didn’t even remember appearing on the witness stand in the previous trial. Alexander jumped on that claim, expressing incredulity Tuesday over “the idea that the defendant has somehow forgotten the entire trial.”

“The defendant has selective amnesia,” Alexander told jurors. “She picks and chooses what she is going to remember. … Selective amnesia is false amnesia.”

In her current trial, Colleen Harris’ description of how Bob Harris died has shifted. She started by suggesting that he committed suicide. She later said his death was an accident – even as she testified, “It was all my fault.”

Colleen’s testimony included her account of Bob Harris becoming enraged after he discovered a text message about his extramarital affair she had just sent Bob’s daughter. It read in part: “Between you and me, as I sit here wondering who I am married to, your dad just called his Mongolia love about 10 minutes ago.”

In an interview with police and testifying in court, she said Bob Harris was depressed over the affair and his loss of reputation if it became known. She said he may have been suicidal.

On the last night of Bob’s life, Colleen testified, she went into their darkened bedroom to console her husband, to rub his neck to calm him. She said her hand ran into the barrel of a shotgun he was holding. She said: “I thought he was going to kill himself” and wondered: “Is he going to kill me?”

She initially said she pushed the barrel away and started to leave. Later she flip-flopped under intense prosecution cross-examination over whether the gun was actually in her hands.

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

Later, Alexander dramatically raised and gripped the shotgun and asked her again.

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

“I guess I was,” she said.

But she vehemently denied ever pulling the trigger.

On her last day on the stand, she said Bob didn’t commit suicide. She answered “yes” when asked if the shooting was an accident. But when Alexander asked if she had gunned down Bob in an act of self-defense, she said she would never do such a thing.

“He had been the love of my life,” she explained.

“She has altered her testimony in a desperate attempt to essentially run between the raindrops,” Alexander argued to jurors Tuesday. “The drops of a rain of evidence are mounting against her.”

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

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