Jailed without indictment since Dec. 13, 2008, for fatally stabbing his mother two days earlier, Derrick Harris’ case finally was resolved Tuesday when he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
Muscogee Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr. sentenced Harris to 20 years in prison for manslaughter and an additional five years for using a knife to commit a crime. With credit for the six years he already has served in the county jail, Harris' sentence will total about 19 years.
Harris’ case made headlines not only back in 2008 when it happened, but again this year when Columbus judges began demanding action on cases that long remained unindicted.
"Our concern is simply making sure that the Constitution's guarantees of a speedy trial and due process are met,” Circuit Chief Judge Gil McBride said then.
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With Harris’ case among the oldest still unindicted, Jordan summoned attorneys to a “status conference” in April to update its progress. Assistant District Attorney Brad Bickerstaff and defense attorney Steve Craft said then that they hoped to resolve it within a month.
Harris' case initially was delayed so he could undergo a psychological evaluation, but that report was filed March 10, 2010. The case at that time was in Judge John Allen's court, and Allen noted the report was in and asked attorneys to review it, but still the case hung in limbo four more years.
Rather than seek a grand jury indictment, Bickerstaff instead drew up a formal accusation, sufficient to authorize attorneys to arrange a plea deal for Tuesday's court session.
Police said Harris in a drunken rage twice stabbed 62-year-old Lorraine Street with a kitchen knife, provoked by his mother’s threatening to evict him from her Claussen Drive apartment.
Relatives accompanied by police the following day found her blood-soaked body, and saw blood also was splattered on the walls and carpet of her bedroom, they said.
The knife was found in two pieces, its handle on one side of Street's bed and the blade on the other, investigators said.
Harris initially was charged with murder and with armed robbery for taking his mother's cell phone.
His taking the cell phone made relatives suspect the slaying was no accident. "He knew what he was doing," Minnie Moore told Jordan before the sentencing. Bickerstaff said Moore is Street's cousin.
Harris in an earlier hearing was asked why he took the phone, Moore said. "He said so she wouldn't be able to contact anyone to help her," she said.
Craft said he believes that Harris injured his mother during a confrontation over his living with her while paying no rent, and that Harris fled the apartment immediately, not realizing how profusely she was bleeding. Street's family thought Harris fatally Street and lingered in the home, drinking Smirnoff Ice and eating a sandwich, but offering no aid to his dying mother.
The confrontation occurred on the evening of Dec. 11, 2008. Street's relatives called her that day, and heard Harris ranting in the background. Believing Harris physically as well as verbally had been abusing his mother, they were trying to get Street to kick her son out and move to Peachtree City, where her brother lives.
Moore said the day they called her, they tried to talk Street into leaving the apartment, for her own safety. "Please go to the neighbor's. He's going to hurt you," Moore said they told her, but Street felt she would be safe in her bedroom.
When she didn't answer the telephone the next day, family from Peachtree City drove down and had Columbus police help them break into the apartment. They found Street dead at the top of the stairs, outside her bedroom. Bickerstaff said she had two wounds, one cut under her right arm and another in her torso. The latter was superficial, but the cut under her arm severed an artery, so she bled to death, the prosecutor said.
Police looking for Harris found he had moved in with a friend, telling his host his mother was angry and he wouldn't be able to return home. He told officers he'd been drinking and remembered only that he had pushed Street and seen blood, so he fled.
Craft said Harris did not know the extent of his mother's injury, or he would have tried to help. It was a "sad domestic situation," the attorney said.
The family didn't see it that way. "He's been hurting her for years," Moore told Jordan, concluding her remarks with, "The whole thing was so awful, and it's been six years, and we want justice, your honor."
Bickerstaff said Harris had a psychological evaluation because he years ago sustained a traumatic brain injury and lost an eye during a fight. The evaluation showed he had no disability and could distinguish right from wrong, the prosecutor said.
After the sentencing, Street's brother Eddie Harris spoke to reporters outside the courtroom.
"This is the first time any kind of violent crime has happened in our family," he said, and the family was glad to see it end.
But the relatives still weren't buying the defense argument Street's homicide was inadvertent, he said: "It wasn't an accident, and to watch him go out and eat a sandwich while my sister bled, died from her arterial wound, and he could have probably helped her, it's not a good feeling."
His sister had been about to move, and would have safely escaped her son, he said: "We had just come from a cruise. It was our first one, and I was happy we took her along. We were going to change her life. We were going to move her up to where we live, and she was going to get away from that situation. She was pretty happy about it. That's the last time I saw her alive."
Street's informing her son of her imminent departure likely "infuriated" him, said Eddie Harris. He said Derrick Harris had lived with Street "all of his life," adding: "He felt entitled that she would take care of him for the rest of her life."
He said Street had retired from Holiday Inn and was living on Social Security.