For almost seven hours, Defense Attorney Jeremy Armstrong endeavored to show how a lifetime of physical, mental and sexual abuse led James Allen Harrison Jr. to slaughter Thomas Fred Day Jr. on Jan. 13, 1998.
Tuesday, a unanimous jury convicted Harrison of capital murder for the second time since he was first sentenced to death in 2001. He won a retrial after the court ruled two jurors had failed to disclose potential prejudices.
The jury must now weigh whether to sentence Harrison to life without parole or to give him the death penalty. They deliberated for around one hour Wednesday before adjourning until Thursday at 9 a.m.
Three days after his slaughter, Day's father found the victim dead in his 1707 18th Avenue home with his throat cut "literally from ear to ear," according to previous testimony. Police later discovered Harrison robbed and beat Day before pawning $400 worth of compact discs and other stolen goods taken from the victim's house.
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A doctor testified that Day's smashed larynx alone would have killed him had Harrison not sliced his neck so grievously that the back of his throat was visible. In crime scene photos, his nose was fractured twice, his white sweatpants appeared stained with blood and his face was bruised and scraped.
Davis, recalling the brutality of the murder, urged the jury during the sentence hearing Wednesday to consider Day's disabled status and the 16 years since his death that his family had been denied Day's presence.
"The state is not in the business of revenge," Davis said in his opening arguments. "The state is entitled to retribution. That means justice, and justice calls for the death penalty."
Armstrong, who acted as one of Harrison's two attorneys, told the jury he would strive to show not that Harrison didn't deserve to be held accountable for his actions, but that traumatic experiences had led the man to a potential psychological break the day of Day's murder.
"We submit that James is remorseful in what he did. He has cried. I know a couple of you have looked over at the table during this trial and have seen him cry," Armstrong said. "The only thing that can happen is life without parole or the death penalty. Either way, James Allen Harrison will take his last breath in a prison facility."
For nearly three hours, both Davis and Armstrong examined University of Alabama Sociology Professor Joanne J. Terrell, who acts as a forensic social worker during the summer months. Terrell, who interviewed Harrison, as well as his four siblings, mother and other relatives, reconstructed Harrison's childhood, starting with the abuse his mother endured at the hands of his allegedly alcoholic father during her pregnancy with the defendant.
Terrell said Harrison spent his first eight or nine years living with his mother and father, who both are accused of abusing their children with belt buckles, broom handles, electrical cords and unidentified weapons. Several siblings corroborated Terrell's testimony, saying Harrison's father repeatedly sent their mother to the hospital when the two would argue drunkenly during the weekends.
"Their mother had to get 57 stitches one time because James Allen Harrison Sr. threw her against the kitchen counter," Terrell said. "Children that witness domestic violence are traumatized, even if they are not involved in the violence. That's why if law enforcement finds out that parents are engaging in violence, they'll remove the children from the home. In this case, James Allen was traumatized twice."
After Harrison's mother divorced his father, the children were removed from their mother's care temporarily due to consistent neglect. They were often left home alone. By the time Harrison was 8 years old, his family had moved 11 times. He would go through 20 different school systems before he dropped out in the second semester of 10th grade, never completing a full year in the same school, Terrell testified.
Davis later asked Terrell if Harrison's poor grades and lackluster school career was due to Harrison lapsed attendance or lack of application. Terrell said that Harrison did tell her in interviews he was often absent from class because he had no parental supervision to ensure he attended school.
Harrison and his siblings went back and forth between their mother's custody and the state's until she remarried a man the oldest sibling described as "evil."
In addition to continuing the siblings' physical abuse, Terrell said the stepfather nightly molested and raped Harrison's three sisters. One sibling told Terrell during her interviews that they "were more like slaves than children."
Harrison's oldest sister testified Wednesday that Harrison tried to prevent the stepfather from sexually abusing the girls, but was often knocked unconscious for his efforts — once with a car bumper and another time with the metal frame of a cot. Her stepfather drank continually, she said.
"I don't know if I would call it drunk, because I never saw him sober," the sister told the court. "He would get up in the morning and drink a cup of coffee, and then he would start with a Budweiser. It would be all day."
The litany of abuse was not reported to law enforcement, the oldest sister told the court, because the girls' mother beat them when they attempted to tell her about the abuse. The second oldest sister, who visibly shook and cried throughout her testimony, said she attempted to tell her mother about the sexual abuse after she menstruated for the first time and thought her stepfather had seriously injured her.
"We figured once we told our mom and it didn't do any good, it wouldn't do any good to tell anyone else," the oldest sister told the court. "If your mom doesn't believe you, who will?"
Sometime during Harrison's adolescence, the siblings were again split apart and sent to foster care. Harrison and his younger brother were sent to live with six to seven other children in Bonifay, Fla. There, they were sexually abused and tortured by foster parents for about a year, Terrell and the siblings testified.
Harrison's younger brother and Terrell told the court the foster parents forced the children in that house to perform sexual acts on each other and on the foster parents. The foster parents, who were not named, are also accused of sodomizing the boys and shocking their genitals with electrical wires.
After Harrison was transferred to a different foster home, the younger brother ran away. He told the court he attempted to tell police about the maltreatment after officers picked him up, but law enforcement did not believe his story.
"They picked me up and asked me why I was so bruised up, and then they took me to a police station," the brother said. "I ain't never heard nothing else about that place."
Harrison dropped out of school in 10th grade and went to Louisiana, where he worked off an on as a mechanic for his biological father and for a fishing company. Between then and Day's murder, he married three times and had four children. He is not in contact with any of his children, Davis pointed out during his cross examinations.
Though Terrell initially insisted Harrison had no recorded violent acts before the murder, Davis later brought up a 1994 domestic violence arrest that followed a complaint made by one of his wives. Another wife, he said, charged Harrison with holding a knife to her throat and threatening to kill her.
Terrell said the domestic violence did not surprise her, as children who have been through traumatic experiences often recreate their childhood abuse.
"Of the 135 cases I've done, this may have been the worst history I've seen," Terrell said. "I believe Harrison never had a chance at a normal life."
During his closing arguments, Armstrong argued that sentencing Harrison to death wouldn't bring peace to the long history of violence that ended in Day's death.
"Death doesn't make any sense. The death of Fred Day Jr. didn't make any sense, and the death penalty here doesn't make any sense," Armstrong said.
Davis countered that although the acts committed during Harrison's childhood were horrible, Harrison was the only one responsible for his actions.
"I don't doubt that these women were sexually abused, and that (the younger brother) may have been, and even (Harrison)," Davis said. "But those instances have nothing to do with what happened on Jan. 13, 1998."
Davis implored the jury to not only consider the pain of Harrison's family, but also the pain that Day's family had been subjected to.
"(Harrison) is here not because of what someone else did to him — certainly not what Fred Day did to him," Davis said. "He is here because of deliberate actions to take everything away from Fred Day. No matter what you do, it's not perfect justice for Fred Day Jr. He can't get those 16 years back. His mother and sister can't get their brother and child back."