Chris and Jason Harris showed no visible connection to each other across the crowded courtroom last month as Jason offered testimony that helped convict his sibling of murder and seal a deal for himself that allows him to serve far less time in prison than the life term Chris faces when he is sentenced in July.
At the close of his time on the witness stand, Jason said he still loved his brother, eight years his senior.
Before proclaiming that love, Jason told the jury that his brother had confessed on Sept. 21, 2009, to bludgeoning Rick and Ruth Gee, along with their children Justina Constant, 16, Dillen Constant, 14, and Austin Gee, 11, in their Beason home. He said Chris also admitted he hit Tabitha Gee, 3 at the time, with the same tire iron.
A tale of two brothers
Logan County State’s Attorney Jonathan Wright said in his opening statement in the four-week trial that Jason is not a likeable person, a remark many would consider one of the bigger understatements of the trial. Harris showed no emotion as he explained why he stood by while his brother beat Dillen with the iron rod and listened to the screams and commotion inside the house, responding simply, “It crossed my mind but I didn’t want any part of what was going on.”
Jason’s history as a convicted perjurer and his admission that he lied so many times to investigators that he lost track of the lies were among the factors jurors had to weigh when reaching their decision to convict Chris Harris. Defense lawyers Dan Fultz and Peter Naylor took on the multi-pronged challenge of trying to convince the jury that Chris Harris killed Dillen in self-defense after a bloody battle between the teen armed with a kitchen knife and Harris, who was once married to Rick Gee’s daughter, blocking blows with a tire iron he picked up from the hallway where Rick Gee lay face down, dead or near death.
“I didn’t relish that but that was what we were told happened,” Fultz said of the story that, if believed, is based on the Harris’ brothers colossal misfortune of stopping by the Gee house for marijuana at the exact time Dillen was murdering his family.
The defense also had to deal with Chris Harris’ lies to police. He denied going to Beason the night of the murders and instead claimed that he dropped his brother off at home before going to look up a former girlfriend in McLean and when she wasn’t available, he returned to Jason’s home in Armington, too.
Harris persisted with his story — even after he was confronted with his bloody palm print collected from a bathroom counter above the severely beaten body of Austin. The intention to claim self-defense was filed in August, after Harris’ lawyers were satisfied that enough potential evidence existed to argue the assertion, said Fultz.
Reconciling the evidence
In addition to sorting through the dueling versions of what happened inside the Gee home, jurors also had to consider forensic evidence that seemed to support one side more than the other or could not be explained by either side.
The detection of Dillen’s DNA under Rick Gee’s fingernails was minimized by the state but emphasized by Fultz as evidence that the two had fought each other before Harris arrived. The lack of any serious injuries on Harris pointed more clearly to the self-defense theory than the state’s accusation, the defense argued.
But prosecutor Mike Atterberry, who handled the case with fellow Assistant Attorney General Steve Nate and Logan County State’s Attorney Jonathan Wright, said the state knew it could not rely solely on Jason Harris or a single piece of evidence to prove the case.
“It was the totality, a combination of evidence and testimony. We knew it would be a lot for the jury to absorb,” said Atterberry.
Juror Seth Jones said after the trial that the forensic evidence, much of it gruesome, could not be overcome by the defense.
Justice for Logan County
Wright said after the trial that he is satisfied with the 20-year sentence negotiated with Jason Harris in exchange for his testimony and guilty plea to concealing a homicide, drug dealing and obstruction of justice. After day for day credit in prison and allowances for time he’s served in jail, Jason Harris will likely be behind bars about six more years. No date has been set for his formal plea and sentencing.
Sara Duncan, the mother of Jason Harris’ girlfriend, Jennifer Earnest, was sentenced to 24 months probation May 17 for misdemeanor resisting a peace officer, a charge that was downgraded from felony obstruction of justice. The Florida woman was also ordered to pay a $2,500 fine at the plea hearing she attended during what she believed was a trip to testify at the Peoria trial. Prosecutors told Duncan and Earnest, who still faces obstruction of justice charges for allegedly providing a false alibi to Chris Harris, that they were not needed for the trial.
Wright acknowledged that the case was emotional and personal for those who worked it for more than three years.
“It’s personal in the sense of the victims and I hope this will bring an element of closure for their families. It also becomes emotional. A lot of time was put into this on everybody’s part. There were nights when we were all up late working on this case,” said Wright.
The Gee case has also taken a financial toll on Logan County. As of this week, the county has paid out $334,000 in expenses, with some hefty bills still anticipated for trial-related costs. Most of that was for the Harris’ attorneys, who earned $250,000 for the 15 months they worked on the case.