Russell murder retrial: Victim's head battered, throat crushed and slashed

Prosecutors in Russell County’s capital murder retrial of James Allen Harrison Jr. spent Thursday ripping up Harrison’s account of cutting 41-year-old Thomas Fred Day Jr.’s throat the night of Jan. 13, 1998.

District Attorney Ken Davis played a recording of Harrison’s second interview with a Phenix City police detective probing Day’s homicide. As in his first statements to police, Harrison in his second round of questioning insisted he only swung at Day with a knife after Day punched him in the ribs.

“Honest to God, that was it,” Harrison told the detective of cutting Day with a lock-blade knife he’d pulled from his right front pants pocket. “I know I cut him because I felt some blood on my knife.”

Later Harrison told the officer: “I thought I just nicked him on the side of his neck. I didn’t think I cut him that bad.”

The confrontation was sparked by Harrison’s returning empty-handed after Day asked him to go to Columbus to get some crack cocaine, Harrison told investigators.

He claimed Day “went ballistic” when Harrison came back with no crack. Day was inebriated, he said: “I mean, Fred was drunk, you know, but I didn’t think he was that drunk.”

Harrison said that upon cutting Day, he immediately left the 18th Avenue house in Day’s 1989 Mazda 626 — neither turning off the house lights nor locking the door — and never went back.

Davis maintains Harrison not only killed Day intentionally, but looted the home of anything he could sell to get more money for crack cocaine.

Day had an extensive music collection on compact discs. Davis showed the jury video from security cameras at Phenix City’s Pawn Headquarters. It showed Harrison pawning some of Day’s CDs the morning of Jan. 14, 1998, and selling more that afternoon. Harrison told police he did not take those from Day’s home, but found them in boxes in Day’s car.

Davis called medical examiner James Lauridson, who testified his autopsy showed Day had extensive head injuries other than a slit throat: On his head and face he had scrapes and bruises with a “squared-off pattern,” as if struck with an object. His nose was crushed, breaking its bone and cartilage. And a blow to his neck above the cut in his throat smashed Day’s larynx and the bone supporting his tongue.

Lauridson said the latter injury so damaged the structures in Day’s neck that it apparently was delivered while Day was backed against a hard surface such as a floor. It would have kept Day from breathing or swallowing, Lauridson said. The slice across Day’s neck did not sever his carotid arteries, but the wound was so wide it exposed the rear of Day’s throat, the medical examiner said.

And contrary to Harrison’s claim, a blood analysis showed no alcohol in Day’s system, said Lauridson, who added that cocaine metabolites — byproducts of cocaine use that remain in the body — showed Day hadn’t used cocaine in 12 hours or more.

Lauridson also confirmed Day was partially disabled, unable to use his left arm. Earlier testimony showed Day sustained a brain-stem injury in a 1984 three-wheeler wreck that also impaired his gait, causing him to drag one leg.

On Thursday jurors heard more details about where Harrison claimed to have been between the Tuesday night he cut Day and the following Friday when Columbus police caught him in Day’s car at Victory Drive and 10th Avenue, just hours after relatives found Day’s body.

Harrison said that when he left Day’s home that Tuesday, he drove to a plasma center off Veterans Parkway in Columbus and parked Day’s car behind it. He spent the rest of that night in the car, he told police.

The following Wednesday, he used the car to drive to the pawn shop and hock Day’s CDs, then spent the money on food and crack, again left the car behind the plasma center, and spent that night on the riverbank, he said.

He spent Thursday night with a friend, and retrieved Day’s car Friday, when he had planned to return it, he told police.

That Friday was when Day’s father went to the 18th Avenue house, got a spare key hidden on the back porch, went in and found his son’s body.

The doors were locked and no lights were on, the father told police. Day’s older sister, who earlier had gone by the house looking for her brother but was unaware of the hidden key, said no lights were on when she was there.

Yet Harrison told police that when he fled Day’s home, “the light was on in the dining room, and I didn’t lock the door.”

He also claimed to have called Day’s house twice after he fled and left messages on an answering machine, which recorded calls on a microcassette tape. Detectives said they recovered that tape, and found no calls from Harrison on it.

Harrison’s first trial was held in 2000, and he was sentenced to death the next year. He won a retrial through appeals that showed two jurors in his first trial failed to answer accurately when asked about their potential prejudices.

Harrison’s defense attorneys Walter Gray and Jeremy Armstrong are not disputing Harrison cut Day, but maintain the offense was not egregious enough to warrant the death penalty.

They say that if Harrison this time is not convicted of a capital crime — for which the penalty would be death or life without parole — then he almost immediately will be eligible for parole because of the time he’s already served in prison.