PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — A 34-year-old man was found guilty on Friday of beating five members of his ex-wife's family to death with a tire iron at their home in a small town in central Illinois.
Jurors deliberated for about five hours before finding Christopher Harris guilty on five counts of first-degree murder. Harris sat quietly as the verdict was read count by count, dropping his head into his hands. He faces a mandatory life sentence.
In sometimes tearful testimony, Harris admitted that he killed 14-year-old Dillen Constant on Sept. 21, 2009, but said he only did so after he stumbled upon the teenager killing the four others at their home in Beason. But Harris' own brother, Jason Harris, testified that Christopher Harris told him he had killed all five, telling him, "I (messed) up. I killed them all."
Jason Harris, 25, told the court that he and his brother had spent the night drinking and using drugs together, and that he hid among trees in the family yard, watching and listening as Christopher Harris bashed his ex-wife's family to death. But Jason Harris' testimony was often called into question by the defense, which noted he'd repeatedly lied to police and was convicted of perjury in another case.
Among those beaten to death were: Ruth Gee, 39; Ruth's husband, 46-year-old Raymond "Rick" Gee; Rick's son Austin Gee, 11; and Ruth's children, Dillen and 16-year-old Justina Constant. The Gees' 3-year-old daughter, Tabitha, was also beaten but she survived. Christopher Harris had been married to Rick Gee's adult daughter, Nicole Gee, who was not in the house.
Logan County State's Attorney Jonathan Wright said Friday that the guilty verdicts provided some justice for the victims.
"For us, we believed (Harris') testimony was important only because it was supported by other corroborating evidence," Wright said.
Defense attorney Dan Fultz told reporters that he went into the case knowing it would be difficult to convince a jury to acquit Harris. He also said Harris will appeal the verdict.
One particularly damning piece of evidence, Fultz said, was a pathologist's testimony that Dillen was immobile or close to it for most of the more than 50 blows he suffered.
"That fact that someone hit him repeatedly is problematic," Fultz said. "It can't be denied."
Juror Seth Jones agreed that the evidence against Harris was strong.
"I honestly was really looking through everything to try and find something to say he's not guilty," said Jones, who is 19. "All the evidence against was way too stacked up against him." He also said Harris' testimony was hard to believe.
A number of the Gee family's relatives were in court, including Rick Gee's mother, Judy Stogdell. All declined comment. One, a woman who only identified herself as a family member, hugged Jones in the hallway outside the courtroom.
"Thank you so much," she said as she cried.
Harris did not dispute that he and his brother drank, smoked marijuana and used cocaine on Sept. 20, 2009. He told the court that they went to the Gee's home on the edge of Beason, a tiny farm town 45 miles northeast of Springfield, to buy more marijuana. Harris said when he walked into the house around 1 a.m. Sept. 21, he saw Rick, Ruth and Austin Gee all badly hurt or dead. He said he then encountered Dillen.
"I turned around and looked and he was standing there," Harris testified. "He had a knife in his hand and was covered in blood." According to Harris, Dillen swiped at him with the knife, prompting Harris to pick up the tire iron he found in the home. Harris said the two fought in several locations in the house.
He said he didn't call the police, and subsequently lied when questioned by detectives to say he hadn't been at the house that night, because he didn't want to have to explain why he killed Dillen.
But Jason Harris told the court he believed they went to the Gee's home that night because his brother had wanted to have sex with Justina Constant. He said he saw his older brother grab a tire iron from the bed of his pickup before going into the house. Jason Harris said he listened, frightened, from the trees outside, to screams and awful noises that made him believe the house was being torn apart. And he watched Christopher Harris beat Dillen outside the house with the tire iron, the court heard.
Jason Harris initially lied to police, too, and he helped his brother burn bloody clothes and dispose of the tire iron, a computer from the Gee home and his shoes. The younger Harris brother was at one point charged with multiple murder counts but he agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges that, with time served and good behavior, could see him freed from prison in six years.
He also has a prior conviction for perjury, something defense lawyers emphasized as they pointed out to jurors the dozens of times he lied to police in the days after the killings.
One defense witness, an expert from Iowa State University on video game violence, testified that based on records from school and elsewhere Dillen had twice pulled knives on his older sister, had performed poorly at school and had a penchant for violent video games. Craig Anderson also said the boy had a difficult home life that included Rick and Ruth Gee's drug use and open sexual relationship.
Anderson said these were all risk factors that could lead a person to violence. But Judge Scott Drazewski barred Anderson — who never met Dillen or any of his family — from offering his opinion on whether the teen was capable of committing the murders.
The trial began in early May and included more than 600 pieces of evidence and dozens of witnesses.