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New Trial Ordered for Calvin Harris
ALBANY (WENY) -- New York State's highest court has reversed the murder conviction and ordered a new trial for Calvin Harris.
Harris is currently in jail serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife, Michele Harris, who went missing on September 11, 2001. Her body has never been found.
Harris was indicted for Michele's murder in 2005, and went on trial in 2007. He was convicted; however that conviction was set aside when a surprise witness came forward at sentencing, and claimed he had seen Michele Harris hours after the prosecution alleges she was killed. A new trial was ordered and Harris was again convicted at a re-trial in 2009.
In their decision, the court justices say a "critical error occured during voir dire when Supreme Court failed to elicit from a prospective juror an unequivocal assurance of her ability to be impartial after she apprised defense counsel that she had a preexisting opinion as to defendant's guilt or innocence."
Court documents go on to say the juror acknowledged following the case in the media, and admitted that her opinion could possibly have an impact on her consideration if she were chosen as a juror.
The defense challenged the prospective juror, but the court denied it. The Court of Appeals decision states the trial court committed "reversible error in denying defendant's for-cause challenge."
The justices also rule that the trial court also did not properly instruct the jury regarding hearsay statements presented as evidence. The justices decided in a case where there was circumstantial evidence, "the danger that the jury accepted Michele's statements for truth was real. Although the court's instruction explained why the statements were admitted in evidence, it failed to apprise the jury that the statements were not to be considered for their truth. This error was compounded when the prosecutor in his summation relied on those statements as direct evidence that the defendant had, in fact, murdered Michele and successfully hid her body, as he purportedly threatened Michele that he would do."
The Court decision goes on to say that pretrial publicity saturated the community from which a jury was chosen, with a significantly high percentage of prospective jurors admit to having heard about the case, and nearly half had formed an opinion to Harris' guilt or innocence.
Tioga County District Attorney Gerald Keene and members of the community where Michele worked say the decision is disappointing, especially to Michele's children and family.
"They've been through so much, it seems like it's never-ending for them, they can't have peace," said Waverly resident Cassandra Miller.
"The ones that I feel bad for are the family of the victim, who have to keep going through this repeatedly, it's difficult for them, stressful, emotional, and I feel bad for them," Tioga County District Attorney Gerald Keene told WENY TV News.
The Court suggests that the trial court consider a change of venue for a third trial.
Keene says his office will try to hold the third trial in Tioga County, and will look elsewhere if an impartial jury can't be seated.