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Justia U.S. Law
Feb 18, 2004
The indictment charged Harris with murdering Wenona by strangulation. A person commits murder when he or she intentionally or knowingly causes the death of another person. Tex. Pen. Code Ann. 19.02(b)(1) (Vernon 2003). The case against Harris was based on circumstantial evidence; no one who testified saw Wenona killed. It is the circumstantial evidence that Harris contends is factually insufficient.
The evidence, viewed in a neutral light, shows the following: Police found a woman’s body on the early afternoon of Sunday, March 4, 2001. The body was located behind a trash dumpster near the former headquarters of the old Dryper’s diaper corporation in north Houston. The body was that of a black female, not wearing shoes, her belt undone, and her pants partially unzipped. Police found no blood around the body. The woman was ultimately identified as Wenona Harris.
Another witness, Mary Jackson, // testified that, before Valentine’s Day 2001, Harris told her he was going to ask one of the deputy sheriffs to lock him up so he would not be able to harm Wenona. Jackson later found out Harris admitted himself to the psychiatric unit of a hospital because he was having homicidal thoughts.
Ifeoma Arena, M.D., a resident in psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, interviewed Harris February 12, 2001, when he admitted himself to that facility. Harris told Arena he had been having thoughts of killing Wenona by strangulation or by shooting her with a gun. He said he could snap at any time. He also told Arena he spent most of his day following Wenona, watching her, and checking on where she was going. Harris was upset that Wenona had a new boyfriend. Arena recalled Harris saying he had a key to Wenona’s apartment. Even though Harris presented no acute psychosis, Arena admitted Harris for depression and further evaluation. Harris’ medical records, admitted into evidence without objection, indicate he was admitted to the psychiatric unit for “suicidal and homicidal precautions.”
Vanessa Vela, M.D., another psychiatry resident at UTMB-Galveston, saw Harris February 13, 2001. Harris saw Vela and her team (including two medical students and a faculty physician) and seemed “mildly distressed.” Harris stated he admitted himself to the hospital the previous day due to concerns about (1) his pending divorce; (2) the fact his wife was dating another man; and (3) thoughts of arming himself and hurting his wife. But on February 13, 2001, Harris reported he was no longer having those thoughts. Vela stated the overnight change in Harris’ demeanor was consistent with her experience: “a lot of patients, once they are in the safety of the hospital, they do realize these thoughts are irrational and they are able to kind of think things through in a quiet, structured environment a long time.” Harris’ change was not the result of having been administered any medication. Vela concluded, based on her observations, the patient interview, and Harris’ psychiatric history, that Harris was not psychotic. He appeared intelligent, articulate, capable of conversing, completely rational, and able to understand Vela’s questions. When Vela told Harris that his soon-to-be ex-wife was not interested in being a part of his psychiatric treatment, Harris said he was disappointed. Vela prescribed Paxil for Harris’ treatment. According to Vela, Paxil usually takes four to six weeks to take effect and does not work for everyone. Harris then checked out of the hospital.
The victim’s mother, Norsie Young, testified she last spoke with Wenona at 12:52 p.m. Saturday, March 3, 2001. Young and Wenona had agreed to join other family members later that evening to celebrate Wenona’s twenty-ninth birthday. At 2:49 p.m., Harris called Young to tell her he was taking Jyron to Cardena’s house and then heading to Coushatta, Louisiana, to gamble.
Wenona never arrived at the family celebration that evening. Young and Wenona’s other family members became concerned about Wenona’s unexplained absence and began searching for her. Young and her son went to Wenona’s apartment that evening, but found neither Wenona nor Jyron, and they found no signs of a struggle at the apartment. Young, however, believed it was strange that her daughter’s car was still parked in the parking lot when Wenona was not at home.
Young called Harris Sunday morning regarding Wenona’s disappearance. Harris denied knowing Wenona’s whereabouts. Young later called Harris a second time and told him the police were looking for him because two of Wenona’s neighbors had seen Harris allegedly carrying Wenona, wrapped in a sheet, from her apartment when Wenona’s arm protruded from the sheet. According to Young’s testimony, Harris denied being at Wenona’s apartment, questioned whether the neighbors had actually seen Harris at Wenona’s apartment, and eventually agreed to meet Young at the Texas City Police Department. Harris, however, never showed up at the police station.