Appeals court overturns Harris conviction, orders new trial
The New York State Court of Appeals has overturned the second-degree murder conviction of Calvin Harris and ordered that he receive a new trial.
In Thursday's decision, the court stated two issues that occurred during Harris' 2009 retrial led them to reverse the conviction, one regarding the impartiality of a prospective juror and the other related to the admission of hearsay statements into evidence.
Harris was found guilty of the murder of his estranged wife, Michele Harris, in Aug. 2009 and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The trial was Harris' second; the decision in a June 2007 trial, in which he was also found guilty, was thrown out in Nov. 2007 after a witness came forward after the trial with new information.
Michele Harris was last seen on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. The family babysitter discovered Harris' unoccupied minivan at the bottom of the Harris' driveway in the Town of Spencer early Sept. 12.
A body or murder weapon was never found, but blood was found on the kitchen floor of the Harris house, on door moldings and surfaces leading to the garage and on the wall of the garage leading into the house shortly after Michele's disappearance.
An appellate court denied Harris' appeal of his 2009 conviction 3-1 in July 2011. The Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case, and a hearing took place in September.
According to the decision, written by judge Eugene F. Pigott, the court failed to dismiss a prospective juror who admitted to Harris' counsel that her pre-existing opinion of Harris' guilt or innocence could play "a slight part" of her decision should she be chosen to serve. The decision states that the court denied a challenge of the prospective juror by Harris' attorney.
Pigott wrote that the prospective juror should have been excused without "unequivocal assurance of their ability to be impartial."
After the prospective juror revealed her pre-existing opinion, "it was incumbent upon the trial court to conduct its own follow-up inquiry of the prospective juror," Pigott wrote. "Given the absence of that inquiring, the trial court committed reversible error in denying defendant's for-cause challenge."
The trial court also failed to grant Harris' request to give instructions to the jury limiting the consideration of hearsay statements used in court. According to the decision, two of Michele Harris' sisters-in-law testified that Calvin Harris threatened his wife by stating "that he would not need a gun to kill her, that police would never find her body and that he would never be arrested."
"The trial court's failure to issue the appropriate limiting instruction was not harmless," Pigott wrote. "In a case where there was no body or weapon, and the evidence against defendant was purely circumstantial, the danger that the jury accepted Michele's statements for truth was real."
The court recommended that, in selecting a jury for a third trial, the trial court consider a change of venue if there is difficulty in finding a fair and impartial jury.
Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.