- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

HOUSTON The outcome of a bizarre murder trial may hinge today on the expected testimony of a teenage girl who rode in her stepmother's car as the vehicle hit and killed her father in a hotel parking lot last summer.

The trial, one of the most unusual in a town that has seen more than its share of rough-and-tumble slayings among its rich, began last week, with heavy odds favoring the conviction of dentist Clara Harris.

The story has been told many times in major city newspapers, the tabloids and national TV, even in the British press.

On July 24, Mrs. Harris, a suburban woman who had been told by her husband that he loved another woman, invited her 16-year-old stepdaughter to take a ride in her new Mercedes-Benz.

As they drove along, the distraught Mrs. Harris learned from a call to a private investigator that her orthodontist husband, David Harris, 44, was at a nearby hotel with his paramour, Gail Bridges.

That call, from a small private investigation agency known as Blue Moon, changed several lives that day.

Mrs. Harris, 44, drove to the hotel near the NASA Space Center in suburban Clear Lake and stormed into the lobby. Told by the front desk clerk that nobody named Harris was registered, she waited in the lobby until the two emerged from an elevator.

After an argument and near wrestling match between the two women, Mrs. Harris and her stepdaughter returned to her new Mercedes 430.

Within minutes, Mr. Harris and Mrs. Bridges walked out, and Mrs. Harris reportedly gunned her car and ran down her husband. He died before emergency help could arrive.

Original reports said she ran over him, circled the parking lot and returned to back over him three or four times.

Tabloid publishers offered thousands for a videotape shot by a Blue Moon operative a tape said to be gruesome and a complete record of what happened.

But when that tape was played for the jury last Friday, it raised more questions than it answered.

The tape, about two minutes in length, was grainy and out of focus, and only about 30 seconds of it actually dealt with the incident.

The woman who recorded it admitted she didn't turn on her camera until after Mr. Harris already had been struck.

Mr. Harris could not be clearly seen in the video.

After Friday's proceedings, prosecutors weren't commenting, but Mrs. Harris' defense attorney, George Parnham, seemed pleased.

"The jury had already heard about the car going around in circles and all," said Mr. Parnham. "It seems to me that [the videotape] was descriptive of the chain of events that contradicted much of the eyewitness testimony. You didn't see a reversal. We saw no back and forth. And to that extent, I think it was helpful."

Mr. Parnham, who represented Andrea Yates in her trial for drowning her five sons in an adjacent neighborhood last year, knows he has a tough row to hoe. Though last week his cross-examination chipped away some lawyers claimed decisively at the state's eyewitnesses, this week the stepdaughter testifies.

The prosecution complains that the defense has tried to contact the teenager who rode in the passenger seat. She lives with her mother in Ohio but is expected to testify today or tomorrow.

Those at the scene said the teenager hit her father with her purse several times as the confrontation took place in the hotel lobby and told him, "I hate you, I hate you." But others recalled she slapped Mrs. Harris and cursed her after the incident.

"Everything could ride or fall on that poor little girl's testimony," said George Carlton, a Houston lawyer not involved in the case but present last week.

Mrs. Harris could receive anywhere from two years to life in prison if convicted. If sentenced to 10 years or fewer, she could be eligible for probation.

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