Case closed on woman's homicide

Harrison investigation dropped by state due to insufficient evidence

Body was found in 1997

Sons' civil lawsuit against her husband said to be unaffected

May 04, 1999|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Two and a half years after the body of a Ruxton woman was found in a wooded area in Frederick County, the Maryland attorney general's office has quietly called off the criminal investigation into her death because of insufficient evidence.

Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Henneman confirmed yesterday that the state is dropping the investigation into the death of Susan Hurley Harrison because "our conclusion is that we do not have evidence sufficient to support a criminal prosecution."

State prosecutors had been investigating the death of Harrison, who disappeared in 1994 after an argument with her estranged husband, James J. Harrison Jr., a retired chief financial officer of McCormick & Co.

Mr. Harrison had long been the target of the criminal investigation and is accused in a $17 million civil suit of abusing and killing his wife. The suit, filed in 1997 by Mrs. Harrison's sons from a previous marriage, is set to go to trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court on Sept. 13.

Henneman noted that the lack of a criminal indictment should have no effect on the civil case, which is not dependent on an arrest or conviction.

She also said that because homicide cases have no statute of limitations, the criminal investigation could be reopened by the attorney general's office, which has jurisdiction over the Baltimore County woman's killing because her body was found in another county.

Mr. Harrison could not be reached for comment yesterday. News that the criminal investigation has ended came as a surprise to his lawyer, Steven A. Allen.

"Mr. Harrison has always steadfastly maintained that he had nothing whatsoever to do with his wife's disappearance or death," said Allen yesterday. "There has never been evidence warranting criminal charges against him, and we are hopeful that someday the person who truly was responsible for his wife's very unfortunate death will be brought to justice."

C. Carey Deeley Jr., a lawyer for Mrs. Harrison's sons, said they had not been informed of the state's decision to drop the investigation. "The family was not involved at all in the decision by the state of Maryland," he said. "The state's investigation has been wholly independent from our civil matter."

He said he and his clients, Jonathan Hawkes Owsley and Nicholas Barrett Owsley, have been concentrating on preparing for the civil case.

Mrs. Harrison disappeared Aug. 5, 1994, after an argument with her estranged husband. Her car was found four weeks later at what is now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Her body was found Nov. 29, 1996, in a wooded area in Frederick County. Investigators said she died from a blow to the head, and the state medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

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.

In July 1997, investigators continued to look for evidence linking Mr. Harrison to his wife's death, searching through papers in his house and combing his yard with a metal detector. He was never charged and denied being involved in her death.

The civil suit grew out of frustration from the family that no arrests were made. It claims that Mr. Harrison caused the injuries that resulted in his wife's death.

The wrongful-death lawsuit accuses Mr. Harrison of fracturing his wife's ribs, cutting her tongue, punching her in the face and throwing her into a Christmas tree, between 1992 and 1994.

In addition to monetary damages, it seeks to ban Mr. Harrison from receiving money, china, silver or jewelry from his wife's will, which was signed in March 1989, three months after they were married.

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