The second phase of the murder trial for Turlock resident Nicholas Harris, in which jurors will decide if he was sane or not when he stabbed to death a 25-year-old man, will begin in about a month’s time with his defense attorney continuing to helm his case.
Defense attorney Steven O’Connor could still face disciplinary actions from the State Bar Association for his proclamation last week that he would not continue to represent Harris because he believed he had not been competent in representing his client during the guilt phase of the trial.
A Stanislaus County jury previously convicted Harris on the charges of murder in the second-degree and arson, along with the enhancement that he used a deadly weapon, for the death of Mark Henson on Aug. 12, 2008.
Harris has pled not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges. Harris testified that he is bi-polar and was in a manic state during the attack and his subsequent videotaped confession. He also testified that repeated playing of “Grand Theft Auto” affected his reactions and judgment that night.
On July 8, just as the second phase of the trial was ready to proceed, O’Connor flatly refused to continue with the case, despite the risks of sanctions from the bar association and being found in contempt of court by Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden.
“I am not going to proceed in this case,” O’Connor told the judge that day. “You can find me in contempt. You can notify the Bar.”
Despite her insistence that O’Connor continue to represent Harris, McFadden ultimately had no choice but to relieve him as counsel and appoint a public defender to the case. She informed O’Connor she would be reporting his actions to the State Bar Association, as would the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. She also scheduled a contempt of court hearing for O’Connor.
By Monday O’Connor had reached a different decision and informed the court he would continue on as Harris’ attorney.
“At the time I felt I had to withdraw as counsel,” O’Connor said outside the courtroom. “Subsequently other information has been brought forward and I could continue to be his counsel.”
O’Connor said any errors he believes he made in the guilt phase can “be corrected in the sanity phase.”
“My main concern is Mr. Harris and his fate,” O’Connor said. “He is a good person and we are hoping for a positive outcome.”
The court could still decide to report O’Connor to the State Bar Association. Deputy District Attorney Michael Houston, who is prosecuting the case, said the district attorney’s office was more concerned about continuing with the trial than reporting O’Connor.
With the issue of Harris’ representation settled, the court had hoped to begin the sanity phase on July 23, but scheduling conflicts with the jury, who were originally asked to serve for six weeks, have pushed the start to Aug. 12.