Husband faces 3rd murder trial; wife vanished in 2001

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Posted: Feb 05, 2015 4:23 PM
Husband faces 3rd murder trial; wife vanished in 2001

SCHOHARIE, N.Y. (AP) — Prosecutors who won two murder convictions against a wealthy upstate New York businessman after the disappearance of his estranged wife — only to see them overturned — described him as callous and controlling Thursday as his third trial started.

Calvin Harris is facing another trial after years of proclaiming he did not kill Michele Harris, who vanished after leaving her waitressing job on the night of Sept. 11, 2001.

Prosecutors have no body, no murder weapon and a largely circumstantial case, but Tioga County District Attorney Kirk Martin told jurors that Harris, now 53, "exercised the ultimate act of control" during a bitter divorce.

As co-owner of several upstate car dealerships, Calvin Harris' net worth had been estimated at about $4 million, and his 35-year-old old wife could have gotten up to half that wealth.

"Who had the motive to kill Michele? The defendant," Martin said during opening statements. "Who had the opportunity to kill Michele? The defendant. Who went on with their life as if Michele wasn't coming back? The defendant."

Harris' lawyer, Bruce Barket, is set to make his opening remarks Monday.

Prosecutors have argued Harris killed his wife at their remote, 200-acre Southern Tier estate, where they slept in separate bedrooms. But defense lawyers contend prosecutors failed to provide a theory for how he could have killed her at the house they shared with their young children and then disposed of her body within the prosecution's time frame.

"The most outrageous thing that happened is the prosecution ignores the real evidence of who actually committed this crime," defense attorney Bruce Barket said outside court. "It is shocking in some ways. They're going to pursue Cal no matter what."

Harris smiled and talked with his four children before court convened Thursday. They sat behind him at the trial.

Michele Harris worked as a waitress in 2001 as the couple was divorcing. Prosecutors contend that her estranged husband struck her after she returned from work to their home about 35 miles northwest of Binghamton on either the night of Sept. 11 or early the next morning.

Her empty minivan was found by the family's baby sitter around 7 a.m. Sept. 12 at the bottom of the couple's quarter-mile driveway. Later that day, Harris told police they could search his home and his vehicles, according to court papers.

A prosecution expert later testified that small amounts of Michele's blood were found in the kitchen and garage of the house, some of it cleaned up. Prosecutors argue the blood splatters supported the theory that Calvin Harris hit his wife with a blunt object, imperfectly cleaned up and buried her somewhere in the woods.

Defense attorneys have argued that there was extremely small volume of blood and the age of the stains could not be determined.

It took a jury four hours to return a guilty verdict in 2007. Harris put his head down in court and sobbed, saying "Oh my God. Oh my God."

One day after the verdict, a local farmhand came forward to say he saw Michele Harris and a man in his mid-20s at the end of their driveway at about 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2001. With that information, Harris' lawyers won him a new trial. The 2009 conviction in that trial was thrown out by New York's top court in 2012.

The Court of Appeals cited trial errors including the judge's handling of hearsay testimony and a prospective juror who acknowledged having a pre-existing opinion.

"I didn't have any involvement in Michele's disappearance," Harris said during a news conference last year. "I would never hurt the mother of my children, and I would never do anything to hurt them."

Jury selection for the third trial finished this week in Schoharie County, more than 100 miles northeast of the Harris home in Spencer. Defense lawyers had argued for a change of venue, saying Harris couldn't get a fair trial where he was twice convicted.

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Michael Hill contributed from Albany, New York.