CHAMPAIGN – The killing of a Beason couple and three of their children led many in their tiny central Illinois farming community to begin locking their doors at night, and nearly four years later, their home stands as a constant reminder of their brutal deaths.
On Monday, the first of two brothers charged in their killings is scheduled to stand trial in Peoria. Christopher Harris has pleaded not guilty to more than 50 counts of murder in the September 2009 killings of Raymond “Rick” Gee, 46, his wife Ruth Gee, 39, and three of the children – Justina Constant, 16; Dillen Constant, 14; and Austin Gee, 11. They all were beaten to death with a tire iron in their home, and only the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Tabitha, survived.
Jury selection could begin Tuesday and may take several days. The rest of the trial could take about a week. Harris’ brother, Jason Harris, is also charged with more than 50 counts of murder in the case, and his trial hasn’t been scheduled yet.
The attack on the family sent a wave of fear through Beason, a community of about 200 residents. Until police arrested the Harris brothers, who are from Armington, Beason was on edge.
“Not many people lock their doors here,” Brittney Fillmore, who went to school with Justina and Dillen, said at the time. “Something like this isn’t what you’d expect, especially happening in a small town where everybody knows each other.”
Neither Christopher Harris’ lawyers nor prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s office or Logan County were willing to talk about the case, citing a gag order.
The brothers’ indictments accuse them of breaking into the home intending to sexually assault Justina Constant and rob the family. A laptop computer was stolen. Prosecutors have said they believe Christopher Harris, who is now 33, is primarily responsible. Jason Harris, now 25, is expected to testify that while he waited outside, he saw his brother follow Dillen Constant out of the home with a tire iron.
In court, Christopher Harris’ attorneys have admitted that he killed Dillen Constant. But they say he acted to save his own life, arguing in pretrial hearings that the Harris brothers went to the Gee home to buy marijuana, and that Christopher Harris walked in on the teenager slaughtering his own family.
“[Constant] killed his family,” attorney Dan Fultz said in a hearing last September, according to The [Bloomington] Pantagraph. He argued that the boy was heavily influenced by violent video games: “He had violent tendencies toward everybody.”
Defense lawyers plan to use testimony from an expert on violent video games and records of the boy’s troubles – including fights at school and threats made against other students – to make their case.
Prosecutors have said the defense’s theory is based on guess work.
“The defense has made no showing that this information is contained in the records,” Assistant Attorney General Steve Nate said during a hearing last year as defense lawyers tried to gain access to the boy’s records. “They’re guessing. They’re hoping to find something.”
The trial was moved to Peoria after Harris’ attorneys argued their client might not get a fair trial in Lincoln, the Logan County seat. The killings have remained a regular part of news coverage in the area, and the county has just 30,000 residents.
In Beason, the Gee house is now boarded up. It’s sat as a crime scene since the bodies were discovered.
Defense attorneys had hoped to take jurors to the home to show them its relatively small size and to give them an idea of what a violent struggle in such a small space might be like.
Peter Naylor, one of Christopher Harris’ lawyers, argued during one hearing that his client couldn’t have been involved in the violent struggle believed to have resulted in the family’s deaths “and walked away without injuries.”
Harris lawyers have said he showed no sign of injuries in the days after the killings.
Scott Drazewski, the McLean County Judge who will hear the case, said that ideally jurors could visit the home, but in this case agreed with prosecutors that blood and other remnants of the struggle that have never been cleaned up make the home a health hazard.
Jurors instead will have to rely on thousands of photos and several videos of the home’s interior.
DNA evidence taken from Raymond Gee’s fingernails also may be considered. Defense lawyers say testing has ruled out Christopher Harris and everyone else in the home, except Dillen Constant, as a potential source of that DNA.
After the Gees were killed, many local residents sought comfort by gathering at Beason United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Darrel Howard only came to the church in 2010, but he knows the story of the killings well. The church’s 60 members have tried to move on but, “there’s always going to be that sorrow.”
The house, he said, “is always a reminder, every time you pass the place. It is exactly the way it was.”
Howard said the Beason killings, like the deaths of five people slain in the small western Illinois town of Manchester just this month — or even the bombings at the Boston Marathon — are evidence of evil that can be fought with acts of good.
“It hits home,” he said. “These things don’t just happen to somebody else — we’re all connected in that way.”