Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Jean Harris Case

Wounds, Bloodstains and Ricochets

At the police station after the shooting, the cops told Jean she could make a phone call and she called Leslie Jacobson, corporate attorney and husband of Marge, the friend who introduced Jean and Hy.  He answered the phone groggy and in his pajamas but was instantly wide awake when Jean told him, in a voice thin with exhaustion and pain, "I think I killed Hy."

"Don't say another word," he ordered.  He got his associates out of bed at the emergency and they brainstormed for the best criminal lawyer for Harris.

The man recommended was forty-nine-year-old Joel Aurnou, a short, balding, roly-poly sort given to cigars and good suits and known as a sharp, effective attorney.

Released on bail put up by her brother and surrounded by friends, a listless, shocked Harris told them she did not care about a defense. She just wanted to die.  Herman Tarnower was dead; what did it matter what happened to her?

Jean, walking with Aurnou to court (CORBIS)
Jean, walking with Aurnou
to court
(CORBIS)

Aurnou found a way to restore her will to live by appealing to her sense of responsibility as a mother.  Did she want David and Jimmy to be known as the sons of a murderess?  For their sake, he told her, she had to clear her name.   Jean decided she had to stay alive to prove she was innocent of the crime of intentional murder and save her adult children from that stigma.

The prosecuting attorney was thirty-four-year-old George Bolen, a tall, trim, boyishly handsome man with an earnest manner who was known to be quite ambitious.  He often gave an impression of a rigidity and strain, a tension that led him to ask questions that were hopelessly obscure or mangled in meaning.  There was, for example, this exchange in his cross-examination of Jean Harris.

BOLEN: Mrs. Harris, [would you tell us about] certain incidents that took place at Dr. Tarnower's home and particularly in the bedroom?"

HARRIS: Could you be more specific?

BOLEN: Did you have conversations with Dr. Tarnower?

HARRIS: Yes, whenever we talked we had conversation.

Earlier in the trial, when questioning the gun salesman who sold Harris the lethal weapon, Bolen released this grammatical monstrosity into the courtroom: "Back in October and November of '78, sir, to your knowledge, was there any in-house procedures promulgated by either yourself or someone immediately superior to you with respect to the procedures to be done with respect to acquainting any prospective purchaser of firearms, with the operation, maintenance and care and general safety of any handgun, be it a gun, or any type of weapon?"

Much of the trial consisted of technical testimony that was very hard for the jury to follow.  After all, there was no question that she had killed Tarnower.  The question for the jury to decide was one of intent.  Had she deliberately murdered the man or had he died as the defense maintained, of a "tragic accident" that occurred when the two of them struggled over the gun?

One of the major prosecution witnesses who testified about the physical evidence was the Korean-born Dr. Louis Roh, Deputy Medical Examiner of Westchester County.  A soft-spoken man, Dr. Roh declared that he believed Harris shot the doctor while he lay in bed.  The wound in the hand was made by a bullet that went on to the poor man's shoulder, Dr. Roh said, since the two wounds could be lined up for this scenario. 

Furthermore, Dr. Roh testified that the number and location of wounds sustained by Tarnower were inconsistent with a struggle between a man of his size and a woman of hers.  On cross-examination, Aurnou was able to cast some doubt on Dr. Roh's testimony by showing that Roh had changed opinions more than once from that he had given in the autopsy report and that he had told the Grand Jury.

Chief amongst the major scientific witnesses for the defense was Professor Herbert MacDonnell.  Tall, thin, and bearded, MacDonnell is a respected criminologist and he contradicted Roh's assertion that the same bullet that went through Tarnower's hand went into his chest.  Rather, MacDonnell tracked the trajectory of a bullet that had penetrated the double glass door of Tarnower's bedroom, then ricocheted and went into a deck.  He found a bloodstain on the glass door's frame and traced its trajectory as well.  He concluded that the two trajectories intersected at the very point Harris recalled she and Tarnower were when he was shot in the hand.  That bullet did not go into the wounded man's shoulder, MacDonnell testified, but through the glass door.

The prosecution and defense engaged in a fierce verbal fencing match over three tiny bits of tissue found in the dead man's chest.  Dr. Roh testified that they were bits of skin from the palm of Tarnower's hand.  Withering cross-examination by Aurnou led Roh to concede that he was not completely certain of that diagnosis and defense pathologist Dr. A. Bernard Ackerman testified "unequivocal[ly]" that they were not.

 

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