A Murder-by-Car Trial Opens

Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- It was a gruesome and dramatic scene, extreme even by Texas standards.

After a confrontation with her orthodontist husband and his mistress last July, Clara Harris tore through a hotel parking lot in her Mercedes Benz and slammed into her spouse, repeatedly running over his body as her teenage stepdaughter screamed in the passenger seat.

"She turned her $70,000 vehicle into a 4,000-pound murder weapon," prosecutor Mia Magness told jurors Thursday during opening statements at Harris' murder trial. "She hit him and she didn't stop. She did it and again and again and again."

If convicted of first-degree murder, the suburban Houston dentist and mother of twins could be sentenced to life in prison.

Defense lawyer George Parnham implied that Harris, 44, acted in the heat of the moment, the angry, impulsive response of a wife betrayed by her husband.

In the "horrific week" before her husband's death, said Parnham, Harris veered wildly between hope and despair as she learned about her husband's affair, held tight to his vow to end it, then discovered his deception.

"I want you to reserve your judgment -- until all the evidence is in," Parnham told the jury of nine women and three men.

Dressed in a black pantsuit and striped turtleneck, Harris wept quietly during the opening statements, a simple gold band gleaming on her left ring finger.

David Harris, 44, was more than her husband of nine years. He was her business partner who helped build the couple's thriving dental practice in the upscale suburbs around the Johnson Space Center, south of Houston. They owned a beautiful home, drove luxury cars and took expensive vacations. In 1998, Clara gave birth to twin boys. The couple's joy seemed complete.

In the spring of 2002, the perfect family portrait tilted. David Harris became involved with Gail Bridges, a 38-year-old divorced mother of three working as a receptionist at his clinic, said Magness.

A week before his death, Harris confessed the affair to his wife, his parents and his then-16-year-old daughter, Lindsey, the child of a previous marriage.

With Clara Harris' consent, David Harris and Bridges planned to meet July 24 at a restaurant. Parnham said that Clara Harris believed the dinner represented a final farewell.

Though Clara Harris hired a private investigator to keep tabs on her husband that night, she and stepdaughter Lindsey set out to do their own surveillance. When David Harris wasn't at the steakhouse where he was to meet Bridges, Clara Harris called the investigator, who said her husband and Bridges were at the Nassau Bay Hilton hotel.

Inside the hotel lobby, Lindsey called her father on a cell phone, telling him one of the twins had fallen ill and that he should come home. Clara Harris called her husband, who said he was at a seafood restaurant but would leave immediately to care for his ailing son.

Minutes later, about 8:30 p.m., the hotel elevator door opened. Out stepped David Harris and Gail Bridges, with a livid Clara Harris and Lindsey waiting nearby.

Desk clerk Paul Garrett Clark, one of four hotel employees who testified Thursday, was working at the computer when he heard "a lot of shrieking and screaming, female voices," he said.

"I saw Clara Harris pulling Gail Bridges' hair," said Clark. "After she pulled her to the ground, Clara Harris punched her in the face several times."

The fracas also caught the attention of food services manager Evangelos Smiros. Clara Harris was "pointing at David Harris at the other end of the lobby," said Smiros. "Clara Harris was very mad at that time. She kept saying her husband was having an affair." Smiros and the night manager escorted Clara Harris to her silver Mercedes S430 parked in the front lot. Lindsey followed. As Harris passed her husband standing near the front door, another shouting match began. "David Harris kept screaming 'It's over, it's over' to Clara Harris," said Smiros.

Smiros watched as Clara Harris backed out of the parking space, then accelerated, heading toward the back lot where Bridges had parked her black Lincoln Navigator.

Desk clerk Clark, who helped escort Bridges and David Harris to the lot, testified that he heard the sound of a speeding car and "cackling" as Clara Harris headed in their direction. Seconds later, Clark said, the Mercedes hit David Harris, hurling him 25 feet across the parking lot.

Clara Harris "jumped the median, ran over his body, circled the lot and ran over him again," said Smiros. "Then she put the car in reverse, backed up and ran over him the third time."

Harris then stopped the car and knelt by her husband's body. "She kept saying she loved him," said bell captain Blake Doran. "She said 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, are you OK? You're breathing, you're breathing.' "

Harris has been free on $30,000 bond since her arrest in July.

Her explanation for her husband's death was simple: "It was an accident," she said last year. She has custody of her boys and the support of her in-laws who, during jury selection, held her hand as she walked into the courthouse.

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