PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Christopher Harris and his younger brother ended a long night of drinking and drug use at the scene of a slaughter, five of Harris' former in-laws beaten to death with a tire iron at a small-town Illinois home.
Prosecutors and the brother, Jason Harris, say Christopher Harris admitted he killed all five that September night in 2009. But Christopher Harris and his attorneys say he killed just one, a troubled 14-year-old boy who Harris found killing his family.
On Thursday afternoon, a jury that spent the past three weeks hearing the case started weighing what happened in the home of 46-year-old Raymond "Rick" Gee and his 39-year-old wife, wife, Ruth Gee. The couple died along with the teenage boy, her son, Dillen Constant; her 16-year-old daughter, Justina Constant; and Rick Gee's 11-year-old son, Austin Gee. The couple's then-3-year-old daughter, Tabitha, was beaten but survived. Jurors will continue deliberations Friday.
In closing arguments Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Mike Atterberry recalled testimony from both brothers in which they said Christopher Harris tried, without success, to persuade different women to join him for the night. Finally, he asked his brother if he'd ever noticed Justina hitting on him and said he wanted to go talk with the girl, Atterberry said.
"The defendant had tried and failed three times to get female companionship that night," Atterberry said. "The defendant said in his testimony that he was trying to get laid."
Interrupted by Dillen as he tried to talk to the girl in her bedroom, Atterberry said, Harris lashed out, beating the boy. A pathologist testified that most of the 56 blows Dillen suffered were delivered while he was immobile or close to it.
"Does that sound like self-defense to you?" Atterberry asked, noting that jurors would have to conclude Harris had reason to believe his life was in danger. "That's laughable as self-defense."
But defense attorney Dan Fultz told jurors that, while there are many reason to dislike Christopher Harris — "more than I can count" — prosecutors failed to provide a believable motive.
"What in the world is Chris Harris' motive for killing the entire Gee family?" Fultz asked. She pointed to testimony from witnesses, even Jason Harris, that the defendant wasn't prone to violence. "People who know Chris very well said he's one of the most gentle people you'll ever meet."
Christopher Harris, 34, sat quietly throughout. He was once married to Rick Gee's adult daughter, Nicole, and had broken up with her just days before the crimes after reconciling.
Along with more than 600 pieces of evidence and testimony from more than 50 witnesses, jurors will weigh a key question: Which of two admitted liars do they believe more? Both brothers admit lying to police in the days after the killings, and Jason Harris was convicted of perjury in an unrelated case.
Both also admit they tossed a tire iron, a computer from the home and Christopher Harris' bloody tennis shoes into farm fields. All were later recovered. And they burned Christopher Harris blood-soaked clothes.
Defense attorneys have emphasized that Jason Harris, 25, was initially charged with murder. He agreed to testify and will plead guilty to lesser charges that could see him free in six years.
The brothers agree on the events of Sept. 20, 2009, before they got to Beason, a town of about 200 people about 160 miles southwest of Chicago.
The two drove the central Illinois countryside where they grew up and lived, drinking, smoking marijuana in Christopher Harris' pickup truck and stopping for drinks here and there in small towns just a few miles apart. They eventually snorted some cocaine.
Christopher Harris called an ex-girlfriend and drove to two different women's homes, each time turned or kept away. Finally, early on Sept. 21, they headed to Beason.
Jason Harris testified his brother went inside the Gee home with a tire iron while he waited outside. The younger brother heard a thud and a scream. At one point, Jason Harris said, Christopher Harris followed Dillen out of the home and beat the boy as he lay on the ground.
In his own testimony, Christopher Harris tearfully recalled how he'd walked in to find dead or badly injured family members, and Dillen standing behind him.
"And that's when he swiped at me with the knife," Harris said.
Defense attorneys used school records and expert testimony to suggest the boy lived with a number of risk factors that could lead someone to violence: struggles in school, aggressive outbursts and an appetite for violent games.
The defense also painted an unflattering picture of the Gees, saying their own drug use and open sexual relationship created a harmful home life for the boy. The couple's poverty, they argued, might have deprived the boy of psychiatric help.
Fultz on Thursday told jurors they didn't have to find that Harris is innocent, only that there was reasonable doubt about his guilt.
Holding up a plastic bag with a DNA sample found under Rick Gee's fingernails that matched Dillen, Fultz said: "There's your reasonable doubt."
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