Harrison's sons ask for records from state Materials requested in wrongful death suit, but probe is continuing

June 01, 1998|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Four years after Susan Hurley Harrison disappeared -- and 18 months after her body was found -- her frustrated family is asking the government to turn over criminal records they say are critical to their wrongful death suit against Harrison's estranged husband.

The prosecutor overseeing the investigation of the Ruxton woman's death acknowledges that James J. Harrison Jr. is "the target of the investigation."

No one has been charged in the case, but Mrs. Harrison's sons say the state should give them the material they need in their $17 million civil suit that blames Mr. Harrison for their mother's death and accuses him of abusing her for years.

In addition to seeking police documents, they have taken the unusual step of asking a Baltimore County Circuit judge to order the state to turn over secret grand jury records.

"We're moving forward. We're doing everything we can to push this forward and get some closure. We need the information to try our case," said Jonathan Hawkes Owsley, 27, a Boston lawyer who filed the suit last July with his brother, Nicholas Barrett Owsley, 23.

Mrs. Harrison disappeared Aug. 5, 1994, after an argument with her estranged husband. Her car was found at Washington's National Airport four weeks later. Her body was found Nov. 29, 1996, in a wooded area in Frederick County. Investigators said she died from a blow to the head.

In April 1997, the state attorney general's office took over the criminal investigation to resolve jurisdictional issues between Frederick County, where Mrs. Harrison's body was found, and Baltimore County, where she was last seen.

Investigators continued to look for evidence to link James Harrison -- a retired chief financial officer of McCormick & Co. -- to his wife's death, searching through papers in his house and combing his yard with a metal detector in July.

Since his wife's disappearance, Mr. Harrison has emphatically denied he killed -- or ever abused -- his wife. He did not return a reporter's calls last week.

His lawyers have accused Mrs. Harrison's family of using the civil suit to aid prosecutors in their criminal investigation. In December, a Baltimore County judge allowed the civil suit to go forward, despite the incomplete criminal investigation.

In court records, the Owsley brothers' lawyers -- C. Carey Deeley, Katherine D. Williams and Kathleen Gallogly Cox -- expressed doubt that the state attorney general's office would make an indictment in the case.

"In the past nearly four-year period, the State has had every opportunity to pursue its investigation unhindered," the lawyers wrote.

They stated, "Disclosure of the investigative materials at this juncture may be highly unlikely to interfere with or prejudice the State's investigation," the lawyers wrote.

In an interview, Deeley said, "I have simply asked that the state share these investigative materials so we might benefit from all the work that's been done."

Lawyers for the state and county are objecting to the release of the information, which usually remains secret.

Carolyn H. Henneman, assistant attorney general overseeing the criminal investigation, has objected to the Owsley brothers' attempt to "to pierce the time-honored veil of grand jury secrecy."

In court pleadings, Henneman and Assistant Baltimore County Attorney Gregory Gaskins wrote, "That investigation is ongoing. No charges have as yet been filed, although it is no secret that James Harrison is the target of the investigation."

Henneman declined to comment on the investigation, saying she had "nothing new to report" in the case.

'Not stalling the case'

The civil case is unlikely to be resolved soon. A hearing on the Owsley brothers' requests in the civil case was postponed last week and has not been rescheduled. The case is not set to go to trial until next year.

The Owsley brothers' lawyers also have accused Mr. Harrison's lawyers of stalling the civil case by refusing to produce his medical and psychiatric records and to answer questions which they say they need before the civil case can go to trial.

"We're not stalling the case," said Steve Allen, one of Mr. Harrison's lawyers.

He said he has not provided Mr. Harrison's version of events on the dates her sons accuse their stepfather of beating their mother because the brothers' lawyers have asked more questions than the law allows.

He also said any psychiatric records would be protected under a state confidentiality law. He said he does not believe he needs to produce Mr. Harrison's medical records for the time after his wife's disappearance because "there's no relevance."

But the Owsley brothers' lawyers argued that Mr. Harrison's "physical and emotional condition at the time of, and subsequent to, the disappearance of Mrs. Harrison is highly relevant to the [Owsley brothers'] assertion that [Mr. Harrison] was responsible for Mrs. Harrison's violent death."

'Reopen the wounds'

Jonathan Owsley said waiting for an arrest in the criminal case or a verdict in the civil case is "excruciating. We've dealt with the hTC same unbelievable, painful situation for the past four years and nothing has really altered that.

"Because nothing has really happened and we've been forced to push forward, we have to reopen the wounds every day because we have to talk to authorities, we have to look through the court pleadings. We keep opening the wounds again and again," he said.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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