PEORIA — A Peoria County jury on Friday convicted Chris Harris of murdering five members of a Beason family, rejecting his claims of self-defense.
Harris looked down, his hands folded in front of him, at the defense table as Judge Scott Drazewski read the guilty verdicts on first-degree murder charges in the deaths of Ruth and Rick Gee and their children Justina Constant, 16, Dillen Constant, 14, and Austin Gee, 11, and the attempted murder of Tabitha Gee, who was 3 at the time, and survived the attack.
He also was convicted of home invasion, aggravated battery of a child and armed robbery.
The jury deliberated about 4½ hours over two days after a monthlong trial that was moved to Peoria after the defense successfully argued it would be difficult to secure a fair jury in Logan County.
The guilty verdicts did not come as a shock for the defense.
“We didn’t come into this with unreasonable expectations. We knew it would be tough,” said defense lawyer Daniel Fultz.
Seth Jones, 19, a member of the jury of seven women and five men, said after the verdicts that he looked for ways to believe Harris but the damaging evidence was too strong to ignore. Jones, a restaurant worker from Peoria, found it difficult some days to look at the gruesome crime scene photos.
A member of the Gee family hugged him after the verdicts, which were returned shortly after noon.
Harris, 34, of Armington faces life in prison when he sentenced July 19.
Logan County State’s Attorney Jonathan Wright, who handled the case with Illinois Assistant Attorneys General Mike Atterberry and Steve Nate, said the short deliberation “shows the jury believed the story presented in our case and that the evidence matched our charges.”
The verdicts reflect the jury’s rejection of Harris’ claim that he was forced to kill 14-year-old Dillen Constant. He claimed he entered the home and found the youth in the midst of beating the family members to death with a tire iron.
Harris testified that he and his brother, Jason Harris, 25, also of Armington, went to the Gee home to buy marijuana from Rick Gee, a known user of the drug. The visit followed a night of drinking, drug use and several attempts by Harris to connect with women.
Jason Harris’ testimony differed from his brother’s, beginning with what he said happened after Chris Harris pulled into the driveway. According to Jason Harris, Chris Harris slipped a tire iron up his sleeve as he headed for the house to talk to 16-year-old Justina Constant. A woman’s scream and loud thumps that sounded like a bowling ball were heard several minutes later from inside the house, Jason Harris told the jury.
Jason Harris, who originally faced the same charges as his brother, has reached a plea deal that includes a 20-year sentence for concealment of a homicide, drug sales and obstruction of justice for initially lying to police. When he receives credit for time served in jail and day-for-day credit for good behavior, he will be in prison for about six years.
For Fultz and fellow defense lawyer Peter Naylor, two factors were toughest to overcome with the jury, according to their comments after the case ended.
“The timeline and the multiple blows to the same area on the back of Dillen’s head” were the biggest defense challenges, said Fultz.
The state was able to substantiate the timeline that put the brothers in the home shortly after 12:30 a.m., when neighbors logged their last Internet conversation with Ruth and Rick Gee.
Members of the Harris and Gee families left the courthouse without making statements after the verdicts. Two rows of the courtroom were crowded Friday with relatives of the victims who commented earlier that they would be happy when a decision was returned.
For the family of Dillen Constant, the verdicts brought some sense of closure.
“We wanted our son’s name cleared and that was done,” said the boy’s stepmother, Terry Miller, who handed out photos of the child to reporters after the verdicts.