Lawsuit against husband dropped

Wrongful death case was brought by sons of Ruxton woman

No explanations given

August 28, 1999|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

A $17 million wrongful death suit by the sons of the late Susan Hurley Harrison against their stepfather was abruptly dismissed this week, averting a trial to decide if James J. Harrison Jr. is responsible for his estranged wife's killing. He has not been criminally charged.

The reason for the dismissal was not part of the public court record yesterday, and lawyers in the case refused to say why they ended the case or whether there was a financial settlement.

Court records show that Harrison -- whom police long called the main suspect in the Ruxton woman's disappearance and death -- has suffered mental deterioration that could have prevented him from attending a trial.

Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr., who was to have presided over the trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court Sept. 13, said only that the case has been "resolved" and referred questions to a settlement judge, Frank E. Cicone. Calls made to Cicone yesterday were not returned.

Mrs. Harrison was last seen alive on Aug. 5, 1994, by her husband. Her remains were found Nov. 29, 1996, near the rural town of Wolfsville in Frederick County -- about 50 miles from her home. Her death, from head injuries, was ruled a homicide.

In May, the Maryland attorney general's office called off a five-year criminal investigation into her disappearance and death for lack of evidence. Harrison had long been a target of the investigation.

Harrison has steadfastly denied killing his estranged wife.

The wrongful death suit was filed against Harrison in 1997 by Jonathan Hawkes Owsley and Nicholas Barrett Owsley, Mrs. Harrison's sons from a previous marriage.

The sons accused Harrison of physically abusing Mrs. Harrison. The suit also attempted to bar Harrison from inheriting their mother's money, china, silver and furniture.

The suit gained widespread publicity, as lawyers publicly argued over the merits of a civil suit accusing a man in his wife's death when he had not been arrested.

Lawyers silent

Yesterday, lawyers on both sides were silent, refusing to explain why the case was resolved before a three-week trial was to have begun or how their clients felt about the outcome.

Harrison could not be reached for comment yesterday. His lawyer, Steven A. Allen, said, "I can't say where Mr. Harrison is living." A message left at Harrison's last known address in Timonium went unanswered.

The Owsley brothers also could not be reached. Their lawyer, C. Carey Deeley Jr., said, "None of the parties are in a position to make any comment."

Court records indicate Harrison's deteriorating mental condition.

In November, Allen wrote to Judge Smith that Harrison could not give a deposition because he had been diagnosed with "organic brain disorder and dementia" and his mental condition "has markedly deteriorated."

Records in the court file also show that Harrison's son, John Harrison, has become his legal guardian.

Expressed surprise

During pre-trial hearings in the civil suit over the past two years, James Harrison has appeared in court looking bewildered, often blurting out comments as lawyers argued legal points in the case.

Although he had been questioned repeatedly by police and had his home and yard searched, he continued to express surprise when he was accused of killing his wife.

Once, when Deeley said Mrs. Harrison "was killed by Mr. Harrison," Mr. Harrison interrupted the hearing to say in an astonished tone, "That's horrible. I love her so much."

Court records show that a certified public accountant hired by the Owsley brothers analyzed financial records in preparation for the trial, finding that Harrison, a former chief financial officer of McCormick & Co., earned nearly $4 million in retirement funds from 1991 through 1993.

`Threat' to wealth

When Mrs. Harrison separated from her husband in December 1993, she created a "threat to J. Harrison's complete control over his newly acquired wealth," wrote Terry L. Musika, of PENTA Advisory Services LLC.

The suit was unusual for seeking damages for a "pattern of abuse," a legal tactic recognized by courts in New Jersey, but not in Maryland, Deeley said in a previous interview.

The suit accused Harrison of fracturing Mrs. Harrison's ribs, cutting her tongue, punching her in the face and throwing her into a Christmas tree.

Harrison, in previous interviews, has denied abusing his wife and said her injuries were self-inflicted.

Records filed in the case show the Owsley brothers' lawyers had intended to bring Dr. Ellen McDaniel, a forensic psychiatrist, to testify that Mrs. Harrison suffered from "battered spouse syndrome" during her relationship with Harrison.

"She suffered physical injuries as a direct result of Jim Harrison's abuse," wrote McDaniel in a letter to Deeley in February.

"Like many abused spouses, her emotional ties to Mr. Harrison remained. She tried to find a balance between maintaining her physical safety and reestablishing some level of emotional contact but she ultimately failed," McDaniel wrote.

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