James Allen Harrison Jr. admitted he pulled a knife and slashed 41-year-old Thomas "Fred" Day Jr.'s throat the night of Jan. 13, 1998, but insisted he never meant to kill Day and never looted the disabled Phenix City man's home to get money for crack cocaine.
That's what jurors heard on the first day of testimony in Harrison's retrial in the homicide for which he was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to death the next year. Harrison won a retrial through appeals that showed jurors in his first trial failed to answer accurately when asked about their potential prejudices.
On Wednesday jurors viewed a video recording of Harrison's first interview with police, who caught him driving Day's 1989 Mazda 626 near 10th Avenue and Victory Drive in Columbus just hours after Day's father found his son's body and called 911. Phenix City detectives still were at the son's 1707 18th Ave. home when one was summoned to Columbus to question the suspect.
In an interview room at police headquarters, Harrison turned to then-Detective Kenneth Youngblood and said, "I done it," adding that he cut Day during an argument over crack.
He told the officer Day had called him that evening to ask him to buy some crack. Harrison walked from a friend's residence to Day's home, borrowed Day's car and drove to Columbus to find a dealer. Day wanted $30 worth, but gave Harrison no cash, the suspect said.
He said a dealer told him to go back to Phenix City and await a phone call. When he got back to Day's house, Day accused him of a rip-off and hit him.
"He just went berserk," Harrison said. "He hit me and before I knew what I'd done, I cut him."
He instinctively slashed at Day's throat with a lock-blade knife he kept in his pocket, he said.
But he maintained he didn't mean to injure Day seriously, once saying, "I didn't even mean to do it," and later adding, "I didn't know I cut him that bad."
He fled immediately, he said, taking Day's car, but removing nothing from inside Day's home: "When I realized what I'd done, I left."
He did not lock the door; he did not turn off any lights, he said.
But Day's relatives testified that when they came looking for Day, his house doors were locked and all the lights were off, including a porch light he always left on at night. When his father finally got inside the house with an extra key on Jan. 16, 1998, he found no lights on inside. He also found his only son lying face-up on the living room floor, his throat sliced from ear to ear.
Investigators examining the scene noticed a plant was knocked over and some papers were scattered on the floor. They also suspected valuables were missing: A VCR wasn't atop the TV, where witnesses said it used to be; a TV in Day's bedroom was gone; and his CD player and hundreds of music CDs were missing.
On Jan. 14, 1998 -- the day after Harrison cut Day -- Harrison pawned 114 of Day's CDs at a Phenix City pawn shop. But in his interview with police the following Jan. 16, Day insisted he found the CDs in boxes in Day's car; he did not take them from Day's home: "He had some CDs in the back of his car. I did pawn those."
Prosecutors say the evidence doesn't support Harrison's account.
First they doubt Day could have assaulted Harrison. Day sustained a brain-stem injury in a 1984 all-terrain vehicle accident when he hit a ravine and the three-wheeler turned over on him, his mother testified. It left Day's left arm useless and caused him to have a spastic gait, dragging one leg, relatives said.
They also said that because of his disability, Day could not have boxed up more than 100 of his CDs and hauled them to his car, where Harrison claimed to have found them.
District Attorney Ken Davis maintains that after Harrison killed Day by slitting Day's throat too deeply to be a wound unintentionally inflicted, Harrison systematically looted Day's home of anything he could pawn for crack money; he even tried to sell Day's car for $300.
Harrison's attorney Walter Gray told the jury the defense does not dispute that Harrison killed Day, but the crime is not a capital offense. "We're here because every charge is not a capital murder charge," he said. "This is not a death-penalty case."
Outside the courtroom, defense attorneys said 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.