Wrongful death suit files given to lawyers

Feuding quieted in homicide of Ruxton woman

August 31, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Susan Hurley Harrison's legal trail has vanished nearly as mysteriously as she did.

No criminal charges have been filed in the killing of the Ruxton socialite, who disappeared in 1994 and whose remains were found two years later in a remote part of Frederick County. Last week, a $17 million wrongful death suit, brought by her children against her estranged husband, James J. Harrison Jr., was settled privately.

And now, many of the documents in the civil case file have been removed from the Baltimore County courthouse and returned to lawyers in the case -- removing even those details from the public eye.

"Cases are generally sealed, or unique things that are evidence are returned, but this is highly unusual," said Stephen Yagman, a federal civil rights lawyer from California. "When parties have a dispute and it's private, they can do whatever they want. But once the government gets involved, the public has an interest in seeing what happens, if only to see and evaluate how this third branch of government conducts itself."

But James P. Yudes, a New Jersey lawyer who specializes in civil cases, disagreed.

"In a civil case where there are questions of wrongful conduct that could impact on a person's reputation or standing in the community, it's not very unusual," to keep such documents out of public view, Yudes said.

Court documents filed in the civil suit showed that James Harrison -- whom police long called the main suspect in her disappearance -- had suffered mental deterioration that could have prevented him from attending trial.

The documents also showed that in financial records prepared for the trial, James Harrison earned nearly $4 million in retirement from 1991 through 1993 as a former chief financial officer of McCormick & Co.

Those documents and other motions, responses, attachments and memorandums in the case file were returned to lawyers Friday. Settlement Judge Frank E. Cicone has ordered both sides to remain silent about the terms.

What the resolution has effectively done is quiet years of wrangling and publicity surrounding Harrison and her sons. The questions that remain may never be answered.

The Harrison case was unusual from the day of her disappearance Aug. 5, 1994. Every development proved futile in solving the case -- the discovery of her car abandoned at an airport, allegations of a disintegrating and abusive marriage, and the repeated public pleas from her divided family to help find Harrison.

Police searched for her without success for two years. Finally, her remains were found and her death, from head injuries, was ruled a homicide.

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

James Harrison has steadfastly denied killing his estranged wife.

Frustrated by a long investigation, her two sons from a previous marriage had already taken action. In an unusual move, Jonathan Hawkes Owsley and Nicholas Barrett Owsley filed a civil suit in 1997 to keep James Harrison from inheriting their mother's estate.

"We're basically asking the O. J. Simpson question," said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor. "Any victim of a rape, a robbery, a murder, any crime against persons can bring a civil lawsuit against the assailant.

"It could happen in every single case where someone is personally offended, but it probably happens well less than 1 percent of the time."

Susan Elgin of the Baltimore-based Women's Law Center said such civil cases might become more common, however, in cases of domestic abuse and rapes in which criminal charges are never brought against an assailant.

"The Harrison heirs were pretty courageous for going through with this because it was a pretty new action in this state," Elgin said. "If criminal action can't be brought forward, I think you're going to see it more and more as people's awareness of domestic violence increases."

The resolution of the civil suit may not mark the end of the case for James Harrison, however.

"Civilly, they're settled," Yudes said. "But criminally, until the statute of limitations runs out, the ax could always fall."

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