Jury: Death penalty for man guilty in Vegas Strip fireball

AP News
Posted: Nov 04, 2015 10:07 PM
Jury: Death penalty for man guilty in Vegas Strip fireball

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A jury decided Wednesday that a 29-year-old self-styled pimp should be sentenced to death for killing three people by opening fire into a moving vehicle after a dispute at a hip-hop event in a posh Las Vegas Strip resort.

Ammar Asim Faruq Harris wasn't in the courtroom when the verdict was read in Clark County District Court. Several relatives and friends of the victims jumped, sobbed and hugged.

"Oh!" Shanna Cherry, cousin of Kenneth Wayne Cherry Jr., exclaimed before Judge Kathleen Delaney warned the audience there would be no more outbursts.

The jury deliberated about two hours after a two-day penalty hearing that Harris chose not to attend. The same jury took less than 20 minutes Oct. 26 to find Harris guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder and weapon charges after a week of testimony in the February 2013 vehicle-to-vehicle shooting and fireball crash.

The judge set formal sentencing for Jan. 4.

Defense attorney Robert Langford stopped short of predicting success, but he noted the sentence will be automatically appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court. It won't change Harris' housing, because he's already held at Ely State Prison, the state's most secure facility and home of death row.

"It's a long process between now and his execution," Langford said. "Death penalty cases always get the strictest scrutiny, and I've seen cleaner death penalty cases overturned."

Harris is housed at Ely State Prison — serving 16 years to life for raping and robbing an 18-year-old woman in Las Vegas in 2010, although the case is also being appealed to the state Supreme Court. He is serving an additional five years after pleading guilty this year to masterminding a scheme to smuggle items into prison.

Harris didn't testify during his trial, which began with jury selection Oct. 12.

A psychiatrist testified in his defense in the guilt phase, and a forensic psychologist was the only witness on his behalf in the penalty phase.

The psychologist, Shera Bradley, told the jury on Tuesday that Harris' father died when he was 2, his mother didn't enroll him in school, and he was neglected and sexually abused while living in poverty in the New York area. Harris was arrested at 17 with a stolen gun in a stolen car in South Carolina and sent to prison after violating probation.

Prosecutor David Stanton undercut Bradley's conclusion that Harris might benefit from a prison environment without access to drugs, alcohol or weapons. He presented records detailing Harris' disciplinary trouble in South Carolina prison, and pointedly noted the Nevada smuggling scheme got cellphones, chicken wings, alcohol and methamphetamine behind bars.

Stanton also played for the jury a recording of a jail telephone call following Harris' arrest in Los Angeles in which he talks about getting an armed assault team for $20,000 to spring him from custody when he was transferred to Las Vegas in March 2013. Police reported taking precautions at the time, but never reported an escape attempt.

No one disputed during the weeklong trial that Harris was the shooter who triggered the pre-dawn carnage Feb. 21, 2013.

Prosecutor Pamela Weckerly cast him as so ego-driven that angry words with a man in the valet area at the Aria resort was enough to spark the murderous rampage that left cars spun-out, crashed and burning at the busiest intersection in Las Vegas.

Video recorded Harris' black Range Rover driving jockey for position with a Maserati in a tire-squealing chase on neon-lit Las Vegas Boulevard, and the sound of gunshots from the SUV before the sports car accelerated through a red light and slammed into a taxi that ignited in flames in front of the Caesars Palace and Flamingo resorts.

Cherry was mortally wounded driving the Maserati. A passenger, Freddy Walters, was wounded. Cab driver Michael Boldon and passenger Sandra Sutton-Wasmund of Maple Valley, Washington, perished in the flaming taxi.

At least five other vehicles were damaged in chain-reaction crashes.

Separate cameras caught the Range Rover speeding away in the night.

Police found no gun in the wrecked Maserati, and no bullet holes in the Range Rover. But Harris' lawyers, Langford and Thomas Ericsson, maintained the shooting was self-defense.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Norton Roitman, testified that if Harris was under the influence of alcohol and the club drug ecstasy, he might have also been hyper-vigilant and prone to "fight-or-flight" responses after having been wounded in a shooting in Miami in December 2014.

A firm link between Harris and Cherry was not made. But both projected online personas big on bravado and bragging about riches.

Harris, who lived in Atlanta and Miami, posted pictures of a Bentley and an Aston Martin, and mug shots from prior arrests. He was shown in a video fanning money from a house full of women who paid him, and talking about having a $1,000 bikini contest during a birthday party for himself aboard a boat on the Atlantic Ocean.

Cherry, 27, who used name Kenny Clutch during a little-noticed music video career, bragged that he paid $120,000 for the Maserati and showed scenes of hotels along the Strip in one online post titled "Stay Schemin."

"One mistake change lives all in one night," he rapped.

The shooting, crashes and fire happened about a block from a vehicle-to-vehicle shooting in September 1996 that left rapper Tupac Shakur dead in a luxury sedan. That shooting has never been solved.