Will a halter strap, a knife blade and charred pieces of clothing recently dug up from a burn pit exonerate Cal Harris for the murder of his estranged wife?
For the fourth time, Harris, a millionaire car-dealership owner and businessman from rural Spencer, New York, will go on trial for the 2001 disappearance of his wife, Michelle. He is hoping those items, found last January, steer the blame toward other possible suspects and away from him.
Two juries already have found Harris guilty. He served more than three years behind bars before those guilty verdicts were overturned on different grounds each time. A third trial last year ended with a deadlocked jury and mistrial, setting up this current trial.
But this time, defense attorney Bruce Barket tells PEOPLE, he plans to advance a theory in court that Michelle was killed by one or more acquaintances, based upon a recent appeals court ruling that allows him to present new evidence hinting at “third-party culpability.”
Barket says the new pieces of evidence found last January in the yard of one of Michelle’s acquaintances “further confirms that these men were involved in Michelle’s disappearance.”
Neither man has ever been charged.
“Both of them have, over the years, either admitted having had a sexual relationship with her or blaming the other one for having a sexual relationship with her,” says Barket. “We established that both of them knew her and socialized with her. They both admitted to different people to burning bloody clothing shortly after her disappearance. That raises some real questions: Why would you burn bloody clothing, other than trying to hide it?”
He says the two pieces of fabric recovered from the burn pit on one of the men’s property appear to be tan and Navy blue – “That’s the color of the clothing Michelle was wearing,” Barket says.
In addition, Barket says, one of those acquaintances was seen with Michelle about 90 minutes before her van was found abandoned at the end of her driveway on the morning after 9-11, with the key still in the ignition.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
Prosecution Points to Blood Splatter, Alleged Threats
Prosecutors have argued in court that blood splatter in the home shared by Michelle and Cal suggested a violent encounter. Although estranged, the two still were living under the same roof with their four children.
Prior testimony also showed that Cal had allegedly threatened Michelle on more than one occasion, and allegedly told her in an overheard conversation, “Drop the divorce proceedings. I will [expletive] kill you. I can make you disappear.”
In addition to the missing body, no murder weapon has ever turned up.
“The case the prosecution has presented over the years is very long on sympathy and very short on evidence,” Barket tells PEOPLE. “Cal has not fared well with juries. Courts have repeatedly reversed the conviction for not being fair, for not considering the evidence.”
As a result, the defense decided this week to forego a jury trial and ask a Schoharie County, New York, judge to decide Cal’s fate. “We thought we’d just do better with a judge,” says Barket.
Cal’s first guilty verdict, in 2007, was voided after a new witness emerged to say he’d seen Michelle hours after the time that investigators believed she was killed. The second guilty verdict, in 2009, was set aside on appeal after a ruling that mistakes were made during the trial.
Cal went into his previous trial with the public support of his four children, who were ages 2 to 7 when they last saw their mother 15 years ago.
“Like he has for every trial, he hopes that this is the one where he gets to be exonerated,” says Barket. “He’s hopeful.
“But he’s been through it before, and he’s ready to take on the fight he has to take on – not because he wants to, but because he has to.”