Colleen Harris insisted the shotgun death of her husband was a horrible event shrouded by the “gray fog” of traumatic memory loss.
In less than two hours, a Placerville jury Wednesday returned a verdict that was crystal clear: The 73-year-old grandmother was guilty of first-degree murder for gunning down her third husband, Robert Edward “Bob” Harris, 72.
The Placerville land surveyor, known to extended family as “Grandma Cokie,” dropped her head and put her hand over her face. She cried as she tried to shield herself from the lenses of photographers in the courtroom.
“She took it hard, hard, hard,” said her defense lawyer, David Weiner. “She is distraught.”
The jury rejected lesser charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. As a result, Colleen Harris stands to receive a punishment of 50 years to life for first-degree murder with a firearm when she is sentenced June 5.
Nearly three decades ago, Harris was acquitted in the same turn-of-the century courthouse for gunning down her second husband, James Batten, 46, in 1985. In that case, the jury bought a defense claim – also argued by Weiner – that Colleen was a victim of sexual abuse who acted in self-defense.
This time, the rapid jury verdict rejected Colleen Harris’ initial trial testimony that Bob Harris may have committed suicide as well as her later claim that he died in a horrible accident as the couple grappled over a 12-gauge shotgun in the marital bed of their rustic home on Wilderness Court.
Bob Harris, referred to by the defense lawyer as “Mr. Everything,” was an exceptionally accomplished man who served as the U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the Tahoe basin and worked on international conservation projects.
He was an avid baseball umpire, including for the Little League World Series, and was a local sheriff’s volunteer.
But for four weeks, a Placerville jury mostly heard testimony about an extramarital affair that Bob was having with a 34-year-old teacher and doctoral student he met while doing environmental work in Mongolia.
The courtroom gallery and jury had to view wrenching photos of the aftermath of the shotgun blast that entered beneath his left ear and blew out his face.
The verdict brought tearful relief to two Bob Harris’ children who were in the courtroom, Grass Valley attorney Andy Harris and Los Angeles police Detective Pam Stirling.
“I wish the jury could have heard how wonderful he was,” Stirling said, crying and hugging well-wishers after the verdict. She added: “I think justice served will be a good start for our family to recover from this tragedy.”
Prosecutor Joe Alexander argued that Colleen Harris killed her husband in an act of premeditated murder because she believed he had just made a phone call to his extramarital lover.
Hours before the killing, Colleen had texted Stirling to express her emotional reaction. “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,” she wrote in part.
The defense claimed Bob Harris was furious at Colleen for sending the text and also distraught about the loss to his reputation as a result of the affair.
On the witness stand, Colleen Harris testified that she went into their bedroom to comfort Bob when she discovered, to her shock, that he had a shotgun in bed. She said she feared he was going to kill himself – or her.
She said she grappled for the gun – and blacked out after he violently pushed her away with the butt of the shotgun. She said she came to later, and never heard the shot that killed him.
When she came to and turned on the light, “Oh my God, I saw the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” she testified, sobbing.
Weiner tried to argue that Bob Harris’ hand was holding the shotgun and the weapon went off as Colleen grappled for it. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is our position that this is an accident,” he told the jury.
After watching every day of the trial, Andy Harris said Wednesday he had felt “incredibly frustrated” by the defense in the case, particularly Colleen’s testimony.
“Clearly, she lied many times,” he said. “It was really hard to sit through that. ... It was beating us up. In the end, it all worked out.”
In the end, the jury accepted Alexander’s argument Colleen Harris was a premeditated killer guilty of first-degree murder because she gunned down her husband out of an obsession of losing him to a younger woman in Mongolia.
The prosecution had also focused on Colleen Harris’ behavior after the killing. Alexander focused on her not calling police or an ambulance for hours after the incident. He described her journey to San Francisco afterward to stash Bob Harris’ beloved coin collection in her son’s garage after her husband’s death.
And Alexander focused on Colleen returning to manipulate the crime scene – including trying to wipe Bob’s blood spatter off the ceiling.
Colleen testified that she cleaned up because she wanted to protect their grown children from the awful sight. She insisted repeatedly that she never pulled the trigger on Bob Harris, even in self-defense, because “he has been the love of my life.”
On Wednesday, Stirling said the truth was that “my dad was very unhappy in the marriage and wanted out.”
Upset that the trial had focused on her father’s affair, Stirling said she was glad the jury ultimately recognized the cold and cruel decision of Colleen Harris.
“When someone wants to break away from another person, it seems that the other person can make a decision other than to kill him,” she said.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.