Thursday, February 17, 2005

U.S. ATTORNEY, EXPERT TESTIFY AT SMITH TRIAL

U.S. ATTORNEY, EXPERT TESTIFY AT SMITH TRIAL

Posted By on Thu, Feb 17, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The federal court trial of former medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith took another strange twist Thursday as Terry Harris, the United States attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, testified under subpoena as a witness for the prosecution.

Harris was on the stand for more than 40 minutes and somewhat upstaged the day’s most celebrated witness, Dr. Park Dietz, an expert in staged crimes who has testified at numerous high-profile trials.

Dietz drew the media cameras after his testimony about “factitious victimization,” which he described as a mental disorder that makes otherwise normal people do strange things to attract attention. Smith is accused of lying about an incident in June, 2002 when he was found bound in barbed wire with a bomb around his neck.

“Denial is the common response when confronted,” Dietz said.

But it was Harris who may have made the greater impression on the jury. The defense team let Dietz go with a couple of perfunctory questions about his firm’s fees for its help on the case ($32,000) and a reference to an error Dietz made while testifying in the Andrea Yates case. Dietz had already explained the error under questioning by the prosecution.

The Harris testimony was possibly more significant because he has been a friend of Smith for several years, including 14 years as a county prosecutor before he became United States attorney.

Harris seemed prepared to simply tell the jury why his office was recused due to the association of several attorneys with Smith. He wound up testifying in detail about his meeting with Smith the day of the attack and the reasons why Smith went from victim to suspect.

“I was afraid he was going to be in much worse condition,” Harris said about Smith’s physical appearance when they met about six hours after the attack. “I was relieved to see he was not in terrible shape.”

It was several months later that Smith became a suspect.

“There were inconsistencies and he needed to be looked at seriously as a suspect,” Harris said.

In cross-examination, defense attorney Jim Garts asked Harris about the liquid that was supposedly thrown at Smith to temporarily blind him. The defense has hammered on that point in its cross-examination of forensic specialists whom it has tried to discredit.

Prosecutor Bud Cummins then followed up by asking Harris if there were other things that made Smith a suspect. Garts objected, but Cummins argued that Garts “opened the door,” and U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald allowed him to continue his questioning. He then got Harris to reply “yes” to a series of questions about the absence of torn clothes, serious injuries, lack of resistance, and inconsistent statements as other factors that made Smith a suspect.

The upshot was that the jury wound up hearing a highly credible, somewhat reluctant prosecutor with first-hand knowledge of Smith’s appearance and explanation from the day of the crime describe what he knows. Previous witnesses included forensic specialists who looked only at pictures or pieces of clothing. Their testimony was rebutted at length by Garts and his colleague Gerald Easter.

Harris left the courtroom unscathed.

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