By Alex Tresniowski
February 10, 2003 12:00 PM

A fight, a marriage, a life—they all ended in just moments last July 24 when Clara Harris stepped on the gas and drove her silver Mercedes-Benz into her husband, David. Several people were present when Clara—with David’s hysterical teenage daughter Lindsey in the car—circled and allegedly ran over his body; one videotaped the incident. Crimes, it would seem, do not come much more cut-and-dried.

But as Clara’s murder trial unfolds this week in a Houston courtroom, nothing is quite what it seems. There is the indisputable—that Clara and David, wealthy owners of several dental practices and the parents of young twins, were having marital problems; that there was a confrontation in a Houston hotel, where David was with another woman; that Clara killed David with her car in the hotel parking lot. But the three male and nine female jurors must also sift through conflicting testimony about what, exactly, was going through Clara’s mind when she got behind the wheel. Was this a brutal, calculated act of revenge by a spurned wife? Or was Clara, 44, swept up in a torrent of grief, jealousy and anger? “I am riding on the wings of hope,” says her attorney George Parnham, the Texas lawyer noted for his defense of Andrea Yates. “Jurors need to understand the complexities of both the facts and the emotional roller coaster that Clara was on.”

Among the biggest surprises are two of Clara’s staunch defenders: Gerald and Mildred Harris, David’s parents, who say they have forgiven her for killing their son. “We love her, we want her to be with her children,” says Gerald, who, with his wife, accompanied Clara to court. “That’s our stance, and we are going to hold it. We are trying to do the best we can for our family.” Clara, who pleaded not guilty and claims that what happened was an accident, faces up to life in prison if she is convicted of murder. But a verdict of criminally negligent homicide, which suggests she was so blinded by passion she did not recognize the risks of her actions, could mean as few as two years in jail. Assistant prosecutor Mia Magness argued that Clara intentionally hit her husband. “Bottom line,” she said, “that’s murder.” Susan Hanson, a friend to both David and Clara, sees things differently. “I know the type of person she is, and I know she did not do this intentionally,” she says. “They were just so loving.”

It may have seemed that way when they were married on Valentine’s Day 1992. The couple built a two-story, $560,000 mansion in the ritzy Houston suburb of Friendswood, where they raised their twin sons, Brian and Bradley, now 4. In August 2001 Gail Bridges, 39, began working in David’s Clear Lake City office, helping to manage clients (Clara worked 50 miles away in Lake Jackson). When Clara found out, one week before the killing, that her husband and Bridges were having an affair, she immediately fired her. “She quit eating,” says Hanson of her distraught friend, who lost 13 lbs. Clara also frantically tried to fix her marriage, joining a gym and preparing for liposuction and breast augmentation. “Her whole life,” says Hanson, “was keeping David.”

At the same time, Clara had hired a private investigator, who told her last July 24 that David, 44, and Gail were at the Hilton Houston NASA Clear Lake Hotel. Witnesses at Clara’s trial testified that she and her stepdaughter Lindsey, then 16 and working in her father’s office for the summer, confronted Gail and David in the lobby as they came out of an elevator. “I saw [Clara] pulling and screaming at Gail,” recalled desk clerk Paul Garrett Clark, who also said that Clara punched Gail three times and ripped off her shirt. After the fight Clark escorted Gail to her Lincoln Navigator and David followed. Clara and Lindsey got into the Mercedes Benz.

Then, testified hotel employee Evangelos Smiros, Clara “burned rubber.” One witness claimed he saw Clara hit David, drive in a circle and run over his body three times before stopping and backing over him one last time; others recalled her running over him only two or three times. Clara’s private eye, Lindsey Dubek, picked up a camcorder after David was first hit, but the grainy videotape did not clearly show the Mercedes running over David’s body.

Testimony about Clara’s mental state was similarly inconclusive. One witness recalled her yelling, “Look what you made me do!” at her husband’s mangled body; another said she cradled his bloody head in her arms and sobbed, “David, are you okay?” Lindsey, who in the hotel was heard to say, “I hate you, Daddy,” also begged Clara to “please stop the car!” and later cried, “You killed my dad,” witnesses said.

Jurors must now decide why she did so. Free on $30,000 bail, Clara is getting ready for the possibility that she will be separated from her sons. “She’s emotional and very concerned about them,” says Parnham. “From the time she found out about the affair to now, everything is up in the air.”

Even if Clara is convicted, jurors could decide that she acted out of sudden passion and reduce her sentence. Recovering from the damage done, though, is likely to take longer than any jail term. “So much has been lost,” says Hanson. “It’s pathetic to see Clara. All she says is, ‘I need him now.’ She is still in love with David.”

Alex Tresniowski

Gabrielle Cosgriff in Houston