Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Guilty by reason of wealth?



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Is a Mercedes more lethal than other cars? More menacing than a pickup truck? Are heated seats and designer floor mats more or less likely to be found at a crime scene?

There must be some reason everybody from trial attorneys to Katie Couric feels compelled to note the make of the car involved in the death of an orthodontist in Houston. The trial, which began last week, is being covered by newspapers from China and Australia, by CNN and the networks, by Newsday and the New York Times. Homicide is not rare, but there is, well, this Mercedes to consider.

Clara Harris, 44, is accused of killing her husband, David, when she struck him with her very expensive silver car. Twice. How did attorneys choose a jury of her peers. By their automobiles?

Hate or hurt?

Are we awed by wealth or irritated by it? Susan Grogan Faller, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd who has practiced for 28 years, says, "People with money are more likely to get out of jury duty." If the accused is well heeled? "I think the jury would be inclined to like them less. And sometimes the outcome depends on the attorney they can hire."

The defense attorney is George Parnham, who failed to convince a jury last year that Andrea Yates was insane when she drowned her five children. Mr. Parnham said he will tell jurors Clara Harris had scheduled breast augmentation surgery in an effort to recapture her late husband's attention. Which was reportedly focused on his receptionist.

Prosecuting attorney Mia Magness said that Clara Harris "turned her 70-some-odd-thousand-dollarvehicle into a 4,000-pound murder weapon."

Mr. Parnham asked jurors to "make the determination that this woman's heart was filled not with hate but with hurt."

Maybe jurors will decide that her heart is beside the point. And how much she spent on her car is irrelevant. Maybe they will simply judge her on her behavior.

And, of course, we do not have to be on a jury to judge. We make assumptions all the time based on how somebody dresses. On what school they attended. On their parish. On their neighborhood. On their skin color.

"I have a lot of faith in juries," Susan Faller says. "I think they work hard to do a good job." She remembers a case during which a jury sat through two months of complicated testimony. "They really had to pay attention, to listen to the evidence. And they did."

Jurors in Texas are listening to the case against Clara Harris. If she is convicted, she faces life in prison - or as little as two years if the jury thinks she acted under the legal definition of sudden passion. They will have to decide if she was provoked by the victim and whether the provocation was so great an ordinary person would be incapable of cool reflection.

The law makes no mention of the consideration of disposable income. But this has become part of the testimony. So will she be punished for being rich? Or let off the hook because people who live in palaces are judged less likely to be dangerous?

Either way, it's not fair.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.




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