Harrison's lawyers angered by civil suit Motion called effort to aid prosecution

September 12, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for James J. Harrison Jr., a suspect in the unsolved killing of his estranged wife, Susan Hurley Harrison, yesterday accused her sons of using a civil suit to help prosecutors implicate Mr. Harrison.

While conceding that "James Harrison is the primary target" in the criminal investigation, his lawyers asked the Baltimore County Circuit Court to postpone action on the $17 million civil suit until a criminal investigation is complete.

The suit filed in July by Jonathan Hawkes Owsley and Nicholas Barrett Owsley, the Ruxton woman's grown sons by another marriage, blames Mr. Harrison for their mother's death and accuses him of abusing her for years.

Mr. Harrison's lawyers yesterday denied the charges that Mr. Harrison physically abused his wife and claimed it was Mrs. Harrison -- suffering from a "serious psychiatric illness" -- who abused her husband.

Mr. Harrison could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The remains of Mrs. Harrison were found Nov. 29 in a grave in a rural town in Frederick County. Her death, from head injuries, was ruled a homicide.

She was last reported alive by Mr. Harrison on Aug. 5, 1994. Her car was found at Washington's National Airport four weeks later.

In their motion yesterday seeking a delay in the civil suit, Mr. Harrison's lawyers said he "deeply loved his wife and had absolutely no involvement in her disappearance and death."

"There can be no question that the civil case was brought by the [sons] to assist the state with its criminal investigation. It is not mere coincidence that immediately after the most recent search of James Harrison's home, Susan's sons and estate filed suit," said the motion filed by lawyers Arnold M. Weiner, Thomas J. Zagami and Steven A. Allen.

State and Baltimore County police searched Harrison's Timonium home for 10 hours in July and hauled away several envelopes of personal papers. They would not talk about the reason for the search.

Allen said yesterday that he believes Mrs. Harrison's "sons are concerned there will never be a [criminal] case and want to become actively involved in forcing a case and become investigators for the case."

As an example, the motion claims that "the relationship between the state and Susan's family has become so close" that the chief medical examiner acted as the family's personal representative by traveling to Boston before her funeral to attend to the examination of her remains.

But C. Carey Deeley Jr., lawyer for the Owsley brothers, yesterday said the medical examiner was attending an examination of Mrs. Harrison's remains by a forensic expert hired by Mr. Harrison's lawyers.

The motions filed on Mr. Harrison's behalf also say that the taking of depositions or any other discovery in the civil suit "would violate his rights" while the criminal investigation is active.

The suit is unusual because it seeks damages for a "pattern of abuse," a legal tactic recognized by courts in New Jersey but not in Maryland, said Deeley.

The suit alleges incidents of physical violence by Mr. Harrison against his wife. He is accused of fracturing her ribs, cutting her tongue, punching her in the face and throwing her into a Christmas tree.

The couple separated in 1993 after five years of marriage. Yesterday's motions in the case stated that "during the several years prior to her disappearance, Susan made repeated wholly false claims, many of which she later recanted, that James Harrison had physically abused her."

"The claims were the result of a serious psychiatric illness from which Susan suffered, which caused her to act erratically," the lawyers wrote.

Deeley, however, said yesterday he was not surprised at Mr. Harrison's denial of abuse, "considering that we are alleging that Mrs. Harrison suffered from the equivalent of battered spouse syndrome."

He also denied that the Owsley brothers filed the suit to aid criminal investigators, saying, "They filed the suit to bring closure to the circumstances surrounding their mother's disappearance and to collect damages and to determine property rights with respect to her estate."

Their suit also seeks to ban Mr. Harrison from getting money, china, silver or jewelry from her will, which was signed in March 1989, three months after they were married.

Deeley said Nicholas Owsley has just graduated from college in Middlebury, Vt., while his brother, Jonathan, just completed Cornell Law School.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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