PEORIA – A man testifying against his brother in the killings of five members of a central Illinois family admitted in court Thursday that he told investigators several different stories about the night in 2009 when they were killed.
Jason Harris is testifying for the prosecution in the trial of his brother, Christopher Harris, 34, who is charged with murder in the 2009 deaths of his former father-in-law, Rick Gee; Gee's wife, Ruth Gee; and three of their children in the small farm town of Beason. All five were beaten to death with a tire iron.
The brothers went to the Gee home at the end of a night of drinking and drug use. Jason Harris testified that his brother decided to go to the Gee home because he said he wanted to talk to one of the eventual victims, 16-year-old Justina Constant. Christopher Harris at one point asked his brother if he'd noticed the teenage girl hit on him, the younger Harris has testified.
But during cross-examination Thursday, defense attorney Dan Fultz tried to chip away at Jason Harris' credibility. Harris, who is now 25, has a prior conviction for perjury in an unrelated case. He was initially charged with murder, too, but agreed to testify in exchange for lesser charges that could see him freed in as few as six years.
He admitted he told police a number of things that weren't true. Asked at one point whether he told police his brother went to the Gees' home to rob them, Jason Harris said he couldn't be certain.
"I'm not sure, at that point I had so many stories going," he replied, also admitting that he had at another point told police his memory of parts of the night weren't clear because of cocaine.
Fultz focused Thursday on interviews following his early October arrest, thumbing page by page through a 6-inch thick binder containing transcripts, methodically prodding Harris with dozens of lies that, in front of the jury, Harris admitted he told.
"Did you ever tell them that Chris went in there to have sex with Justina?" Fultz asked.
"At one point, yes," Harris said, then acknowledging he later retracted that statement. "All he said was, 'I want to talk to her.'"
Prosecutors have never stated a clear motive for the killings, but on Thursday Assistant Attorney General Steve Nate seemed to suggest that Christopher Harris went to the home in search of sex. Under questioning from Nate, Jason Harris testified that his brother was trying to find a woman that night as they drove among bars and houses in small towns around Beason, finally arriving at the Gees' home.
Fultz's cross-examination also focused on just where Jason Harris was when his brother went inside the Gee home with a tire iron. Harris at first told police he ran from the home when he heard a scream, jumping in a ditch.
That was a lie, Harris acknowledged Thursday. He testified a day earlier that he hid in trees on the Gee property after hearing the scream, listening as the beatings happened inside and, in the case of Ruth Gee's 14-year-old son Dillen Constant, outside the house. Christopher Harris admits killing Constant but says he did so after walking into the house as the boy killed his family.
Fultz also noted that Jason Harris told police at one point that he never saw his brother with a tire iron as he headed into the home, contradicting his court testimony on Wednesday that he had. And Fultz pointed out that Harris after his arrest denied helping his brother burn his bloody clothes in a trash barrel behind Jason Harris' home. He admitted in court this week that he had helped burn them.
At one point Fultz asked Harris why he'd told his brother in phone calls to him in jail and in a letter he wrote to him but never mailed that he believed he was innocent.
Harris said he knew the calls would be recorded and was covering for his brother and himself.
Later, Nate asked Jason Harris if he loves his brother.
"Yes I do," he said.
Harris was on the stand for roughly eight hours over the two days. Prosecutors are expected to spend several more days questioning witnesses.
Christopher Harris is expected to testify later, when the defense presents its case. The trial began early in May and is expected to last most of if not all month.