Expert says Texas wife's car hit man once

`Reconstructionist' testifies at murder trial that data refute eyewitness accounts

February 02, 2003|By HOUSTON CHRONICLE

HOUSTON - Armed with computer-generated charts and maps and a $195-an-hour expert witness, lawyers for Clara Harris launched their effort Friday to refute prosecution claims that she repeatedly ran over her cheating husband in a rage.

Dallas accident "reconstructionist" Steve Irwin took the stand shortly before noon, the first in a defense lineup in the murder trial that could include both Harris and her husband's mistress, Gail Bridges.

David Harris was killed July 24 when he was struck and run over by his wife's 4,000-pound Mercedes-Benz in the parking lot of the Nassau Bay Hilton in southeast Houston. The incident occurred after she had found him and Bridges at the hotel and confronted them.

Irwin challenged prosecution testimony that David Harris had been run over three or more times, saying examination of tire tracks and a blood stain in the hotel parking lot indicated he had been run over only once.

Additionally, he said, he based his finding on careful review of police reports and photos, scrutiny of an enhanced version of a videotape made by a private investigator the night of the orthodontist's death, and about 1,400 laser-aided measurements of the Hilton parking lot.

"I just think it was a good day," chief defense counsel George Parnham said of his side's debut. "We got started. Maybe we plodded along for a while, but we made our point."

Parnham's point is that a re-creation of July 24 events based on careful examination of tire prints and other physical evidence is far more reliable than eyewitness testimony.

Star prosecution witness Lindsey Harris, 17, who was with Clara Harris that night, told jurors her stepmother had run over her father three times. The teen said Clara Harris had vowed to hit her husband before stomping on the accelerator and speeding in his direction.

Irwin, a civil engineer with specialized training in analyzing traffic accidents, testified that Harris' Mercedes-Benz traveled 15-20 mph as it approached Bridges' black Lincoln Navigator parked in the hotel lot.

After clipping the Navigator's rear, he said, it sideswiped the vehicle and hit David Harris - who had been standing by its open door - and carried him a short distance on its hood.

The victim was likely flung from the hood as the car went over a curb surrounding a grassy median, Irwin testified. His body was found about 65 feet from the point of impact.

"Human bodies do not bounce," Irwin said. "You cannot give it speed the car does not have. It needs something else. It needs more than one push."

The vehicle then continued into an adjoining parking lot before returning to circle around David Harris. Irwin said the car made as many as three loops, but never again crossed over the bloodstain in the circle's center, the presumed location of the injured man.

Under cross-examination, Irwin agreed with the prosecutor that more information is helpful in reconstructing an accident and said that eyewitness accounts might merit consideration. He said that he had not interviewed the state's eyewitnesses who said David Harris was run over multiple times. "

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