A District Court jury has found San Diego data processor Howard Lee Haupt innocent on charges of murdering a 7-year-old California boy after taking him from a casino nearly 15 months ago.
“I’m very pleased that the justice system works,” a visibly shaken Haupt said after the verdict was read. “I had my doubts early on because of the stress.”
Haupt trembled and wept as the verdict was read, then told reporters he was “very happy” and was going home to San Diego. He said he planned to do some sailing, camping and bicycling with his fiance.
Mother Sobbed Loudly
Roxanne Harris, the mother of victim Alexander Harris, sobbed loudly and tucked her head in her hands as the verdict was read. She and prosecutor Mel Harmon then left the courtroom and went upstairs.
Harmon said later that the mother was “devastated.”
“She’s had to relive what happened,” he said.
The jury began deliberations Monday night after a five-week trial before Judge Stephen Huffaker.
Jurors returned with the verdict late Wednesday morning, and the small courtroom was packed with friends and family of the defendant and the victim.
The Harris boy disappeared Nov. 27, 1987, from Whiskey Pete’s casino on the California-Nevada border southwest of Las Vegas. His body was found a month later and Haupt was arrested a year ago.
‘Thank God the System Works’
“The system works,” said defense attorney Steve Stein, who hugged Haupt as the verdict was read. “I knew in my heart this man was not guilty. Thank God the system works.”
The jury also found Haupt innocent on kidnap charges.
Stein said in closing arguments that Las Vegas Metro Police had seized upon Haupt as a scapegoat in the high-profile murder case. Metro Homicide Lt. Kyle Edwards watched the jury verdict from a hallway off the courtroom, then left.
Haupt resembled a man seen leaving a video arcade at the casino the day of the boy’s disappearance. Defense attorneys contended that witnesses and experts could not clearly identify Haupt as the man in the videotape.
Haupt’s fiance, Tina VanDenHazel, sobbed as she clutched the defendant.
“They arrested an innocent person, and we’ve been going through hell for a year,” she said.
Further Action Possible
Haupt held out the possibility of further action evolving from the case.
“Things are going to happen after today, and I just can’t comment,” Haupt said.
Asked whether he would be returning to Las Vegas, Haupt replied, “I doubt it.”
“There’s no amount of money you can put on a person’s life,” Haupt said when asked about the large sum of money he had spent fighting the charges.
Haupt seemed more composed as reporters crowded around him after the verdict. Noting that police had made an issue of his reserved nature, Haupt said: “I’m a quiet guy. They just misinterpreted who I am.”
Haupt said he became concerned when the jury began deliberations for a third day.
“I expected a verdict yesterday (Tuesday),” he said. “It’s been an extremely stressful year. I just feel total release.”
Relatives Gambled Nearby
Haupt, 38, was charged with kidnaping and murdering the Mountain View, Calif., youth, who was taken from a video arcade at Whiskey Pete’s while his mother and grandparents gambled nearby.
Members of the family were on their way home from a Thanksgiving vacation in Las Vegas.
Witnesses testified during the trial that the boy left the arcade with a man resembling Haupt. But after the verdict, two jurors said the testimony of the eyewitnesses seemed tainted, shaky and unreliable.
Haupt was registered at Whiskey Pete’s the weekend the boy disappeared. He contended he was land-sailing in the nearby desert at the time the boy disappeared and produced witnesses to back up his story.
In closing arguments Monday, Harmon urged jurors to convict Haupt, saying that half a dozen witnesses who identified Haupt as the man they saw taking the youth from the casino couldn’t have been wrong. Harmon also told jurors that Haupt was too rehearsed on the witness stand and shouldn’t be believed.
But Haupt’s attorney pointed to conflicting testimony from witnesses.
Stein described Haupt as a victim of mistaken identity and said he was a scapegoat for police, who failed to find the youth’s body until Dec. 30, 1987. The body was found under a house trailer on casino grounds. The grounds had been searched by Metro Police for two days after the boy disappeared.