In closing arguments after an 11-week trial, murder suspect Cal Harris was portrayed using the two identities that have trailed him since his estranged wife Michele disappeared in 2001: that of a father wrongly accused, and a vindictive spouse whose desire to avert a potentially costly divorce ruling pushed him to kill.
After eight days of deliberations, the jury still doesn’t know which to believe.
For the second time, jurors in Schoharie County, New York, alerted the judge on Monday that they were deadlocked. Their note came six days after a similar alert to the judge that they were unable to reach a unanimous decision of guilt or innocence.
The judge told them to keep working on it, the Press & Sun-Bulletin reports.
“We don’t want a coerced verdict,” defense attorney Bruce Barket told media outside the courthouse. “We want a fair review of the evidence, from fair jurors who have an open mind, who can do the right thing. If we get that, Cal will be exonerated.”
He added: “The hope that this jury would reach a unanimous verdict acquitting Cal, to some degree, ended today. We have to respect the jury, and we have to respect what they’re telling us, and what they’re telling us is, after all the time and work they’ve put in, these 12 people can’t do it.”
Harris, 53, of rural Spencer, New York, already had been convicted twice of the crime. But both verdicts were set aside – the first verdict, from 2007, after a new witness emerged to say he’d seen Michele after investigators believe she was killed, and the second verdict, from 2009, after a ruling that mistakes were made during the trial.
With the public support of the couple’s four grown children, who were ages 2 to 7 when they last saw their mother, Harris, a millionaire car-dealership owner and businessman, hired a third legal team in an effort to prove his innocence.
Barket wanted to steer jurors toward another suspect. Testimony in previous trials showed Michele was involved with two men at the time of her disappearance: the boyfriend she visited on the night she vanished, and “an admitted cocaine abuser who previously had assaulted a woman,” in the words of an appellate court judge.
However, the judge in the current case ruled against the defense strategy, and the prosecution relied on familiar evidence in a circumstantial case that jurors previously agreed had pointed to Harris’s guilt.
Testimony showed Harris displayed a pattern of intimidation aimed at his wife, including a 2001 phone conversation overhead by her hairdresser, who testified that Harris told her, “Drop the divorce proceedings. I will [expletive] kill you. I can make you disappear.”
The couple lived separately under the same roof with their kids during their toxic split. Police found Michele’s minivan on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, at the end of the Harris home’s quarter-mile driveway, its key still in the ignition. Although no body or weapon has ever turned up, investigators discovered blood spatter in the garage and adjacent kitchen alcove of the family home, which the prosecution argued hinted at violence.
Harris, whose net worth at the time Michele filed for divorce was estimated at $5.4 million, served more than three years behind bars while the prior two guilty verdicts were reconsidered before being set aside.
Defense attorney Barket told reporters that if a mistrial ultimately is declared, he would be unlikely to seek a change of venue. This is the first time the trial is being held outside of Harris’s home county.
“If there’s a fourth trial,” Barket said, “we’ll be back here.”
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