Inside Look at Mercedes Killer's Defense

ByABC News

March 6, 2003 -- From the moment he took on the case, defense attorney George Parnham knew that defending Clara Harris would be uphill work.

Harris, a 45-year-old Houston dentist, was accused of killing her cheating husband by running him over with her Mercedes in a hotel parking lot — in front of half a dozen witnesses.

"This is going to be a hard case," Parnham told Primetime 2 ½ months before the trial.

Parnham and Harris gave ABCNEWS extraordinary access to her legal defense, allowing Primetime's cameras to film the defense team's strategy sessions, their meetings with experts, and a mock trial in which they tested their case on a group of stand-in "jurors."

Confrontation at a Hotel

In the statement she gave to police on the night of her husband's death in July 2002, Harris was at times barely coherent, talking nonstop about dental practices and her desire to remake herself for her husband after he told her he was seeing another woman.

She told Parnham that a week earlier her husband, 44-year-old orthodontist David Harris, had revealed he was having an affair with his receptionist, 39-year-old Gail Bridges. She said she tried to save their 10-year marriage by quitting her job, cooking her husband's favorite meals and promising to please him sexually, and that he promised to break up with Bridges over dinner.

She said she checked local restaurants to see if he was keeping his word, but instead caught him and Bridges coming down from a room at the Nassau Bay Hilton, hand in hand. She said she became upset, she got into her car and drove toward Bridges' black Lincoln Navigator, but did not remember running over her husband.

Although Texas law does not allow temporary insanity defenses, Parnham believed he could show that Harris acted under "sudden passion" rather than with intent to kill. While the sentence for intentional murder in Texas is 20 years to life, murder in sudden passion carries a minimum penalty of just two years, with a maximum of 20 years.

Mock Jurors Find Harris’ Account Convincing

On Jan. 5, two weeks before the trial, the defense team convened 20 people as a mock jury. Many of the mock jurors said that judging from what they had heard in the media, they believed Harris had killed her husband intentionally.

The defense team also found that some of the women were quick to judge Harris by her appearance. "Even before she opens her mouth, she has that — that Leona Helmsley look — her type of dress, that much makeup," one woman said, referring to the real estate "Queen of Mean" jailed in the 1990s for tax evasion.

Trial consultant Robert Hirschhorn, whom Parnham had hired to help him pick a winning jury for Harris, said the defense team needed to working on "softening her up."

Next, the defense team showed the panel a videotape they had made of Harris talking about the night of the killing. She admitted grabbing Bridges' hair when she saw her come out of the elevator with her husband, and said hotel employees broke up the fight and steered her toward her car in the parking lot. She said she remembered one of them telling her, "Don't go where they're going."

The phrase stopped Harris for a moment, she said. "I thought: so they're going together in her car, and so my thought was stopping that car."

Instead of driving out of the parking lot, Harris drove toward Bridges' Lincoln Navigator. When she saw the car, she said, she decided to ram it with her Mercedes. Then, all of a sudden, she said, she saw her husband in front of her, running. She thought her car was going to stop on the high sidewalk, she said, but instead it kept going.

"I drove over David," she said in tears, adding that she was so disoriented she wasn't aware of being at the wheel of her car. She said she remembered driving around in circles, "confused," with no conscious thoughts going through her mind.

She said at no point did she intend to kill her husband.

The mock jury's reaction to her account was encouraging: Just two out of the 20 said Harris was guilty of murder. Most believed she had not intended to kill her husband, saying she was in a "jealous rage" and "lost it," and that she "didn't know what she was doing." One said she "snapped," and Hirschhorn latched onto the word, telling Parnham to use it to counter what the prosecutor would want the jury to think: "intentional."

When asked to choose from a list of possible verdicts, most of the mock jurors chose criminally negligent homicide. When one suggested reckless driving, Hirschhorn joked that Parnham should take her to lunch. Only two of the panelists — both men — said Harris was guilty of murder.

Hirschhorn advised Parnham that the perfect juror would be an empathetic woman, not one who would be "jealous or judgmental of other women," and preferably who had been in a relationship where her spouse cheated on her.

Reconstructing the Mercedes’ Path

The mock trial suggested that Harris' account was convincing. However, the defense had another problem: a videotape shot by a private detective Harris had hired after her husband admitted the affair.

The tape did not capture the moment of initial impact, but it showed Harris' Mercedes driving in circles afterward, lurching over what prosecutors were saying was her husband's body. They were expected to argue that Harris deliberately and repeatedly ran him over.

When Parnham and his team watched the tape closely, they decided they could make the argument that the Mercedes hit David Harris only once, and that the subsequent passes went around his body, not over it.

With the help of accident reconstructionist Steve Irwin, they developed the following theory: Harris was intending to ram Bridges' car, and as she rounded the corner, her view was obstructed and she could not see her husband. By the time she saw him, it was too late to stop and she hit him by accident, lifting his body onto the Mercedes' hood. His body then fell to the ground and the Mercedes ran over him once. Then, the theory went, Harris panicked and locked the wheel to the left, driving around her husband's body in a 40-foot circle, but not hitting it again.

The defense's pathology expert said David Harris' injuries were consistent with being run over once, and Irwin constructed a computer simulation designed to show how the Mercedes' 40-foot turning radius meant it could not have hit the body a second time.

Parnham was confident. "I've always said I thought that video eventually would be the best thing in the world for us," he said.

Trial Starts Well for the Defense Team

The trial started off well for the defense team. During jury selection, they aimed for married women who seemed likely to have the kind of self-esteem problems Harris had had with her weight and appearance. They succeeded in getting a jury of nine women and three men. Four of the jurors said they could "relate" to how Harris felt.

In his opening argument, Parnham set out the essence of the defense case: that Harris had wanted to rescue her marriage, and ran over her husband by accident when her actual intention was to ram Bridges' car.

Eyewitnesses testified for the prosecution that Harris seemed "possessed" as she got into her Mercedes, and some said they saw multiple runovers. But in cross-examination, Parnham got them to admit they couldn't see clearly.

Harris cried through much of the testimony, and the defense team assured Primetime her emotions had not been rehearsed.

The defense had a setback when the judge ruled that their computer simulation was inadmissible because it was dramatized. However, Irwin, the accident reconstructionist, still managed to make a persuasive case that Harris only ran into her husband once.

Victim’s Daughter, Parents Testify

One of the prosecution's most powerful witnesses was 17-year-old Lindsey Harris, David Harris' daughter from a previous marriage, who was riding in her stepmother's Mercedes when it struck her father.

The teenager testified that a week earlier her stepmother had told her, "With all he's done to me, I could kill him and get away with it." On the night of the killing, she said, Clara Harris "stepped on the accelerator and went straight for him," saying moments before impact, "I'm going to hit him."

In his cross-examination, Parnham did not question her account, but mentioned that Lindsey was suing her stepmother for a share of her father's multimillion-dollar estate.

David Harris' parents testified in support of Clara Harris, saying she had a strong marriage with their son and had been emotionally distraught on learning of his infidelity.

Clara Harris Takes the Stand

Right up until the last moment, the defense was divided over whether Harris should take the stand to defend herself. If she did, there was a risk the prosecution would get her police statement admitted, with her potentially incriminating comments about wanting to hurt her husband.

"If they think she's lying, she's history," Parnham told Primetime. But, he said, she insisted on testifying.

On the stand, Harris gave an account similar to the videotaped one that had been so effective with the mock jury. She stood up well to a tough cross-examination by the prosecution, but her testimony allowed them to introduce selected excerpts from her police statement, including her remark that she wanted to hurt her husband.

Last-Minute Bombshell

As the defense rested its case, Parnham was concerned about the damaging police statement and some of the testimony, but he was confident the jury would accept Irwin's testimony that Harris only hit her husband once.

But then, on the last day of testimony, the prosecution produced a rebuttal witness who directly contradicted Irwin's theory. The witness, a police accident expert, displayed a crime scene photograph showing a tire mark pointing directly toward David Harris's body — possible evidence that he had been run over more than once.

For his closing argument, Hirschhorn advised Parnham to focus on Bridges as a homewrecker, but not to vilify David Harris as a cheating husband, just a man who made some mistakes. He said it would all come down to one thing for the jury: Did Harris want her husband dead or did she want him back?

Sentenced to the Maximum

When the verdict came, it was what Parnham had feared: The jury found Harris guilty of murder.

But when the jurors came back after the sentencing phase, their decision gave him a moment of hope: They ruled that Harris had acted under the influence of sudden passion.

Parnham was relieved; he believed the jury would recommend something close to the two-year minimum. "I thought we were in good shape," he told Primetime later.

But then, to his horror, the judge read the jury's sentence: 20 years.

Since the trial, Parnham has been asking himself why the jury imposed the maximum. He says he replays the trial in his head every night, wondering what went wrong: whether it was the tire track on the police photograph, or the jurors' jealousy of Harris and her success.

Harris is currently in a psychiatric prison 140 miles north of Houston. She will at some point be transferred to a maximum-security prison to serve out the rest of her term. She will be eligible for parole in 10 years.

Her neighbor at the psychiatric prison is another client of Parnham's: Andrea Yates, who is serving a life sentence for drowning her five children in a bathtub.