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Jury finds defendant sane at time of murder
Harris Nicholas
Nicholas Harris

A Stanislaus County jury found convicted murderer Nicholas Harris was sane the night he stabbed to death a 25-year-old Turlock man and set his car on fire.

After deliberating for two full days and two partial days, the jury returned a verdict Thursday morning ruling Harris was sane when he murdered Mark Henson and he was sane when he set Henson’s car on fire.

“Justice has been served,” said Christie Henson, Mark’s mother. “It has been a long road to get here, but we finally got it.”

Harris had been convicted by the same jury of second-degree murder, with an enhancement for using a deadly weapon, and arson. Harris had entered a not guilty by reason of insanity plea, which prompted the second phase of his trial.

Harris testified he wanted to send Henson a message to stay away from his then girlfriend Vanessa Bartlett. Henson and Bartlett had dated briefly in the past. She told Harris she had recently run into Henson on a few occasions when he came to the grocery store where she worked.

Harris testified he thought Bartlett was being harassed and stalked by Henson. Bartlett testified during the trial she never felt threatened by Henson.

Harris found Henson’s car parked near the intersection of Bennington Avenue and Salem Way on Aug. 11, 2008. He told the court his plans were to slash the tires, but that when he saw the windows were down, he decided he would set the car on fire.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 12, 2008, Harris returned to Henson’s car with a kitty litter container that held gasoline, a tire iron, a jack, a towel, and a knife.

Harris said he changed his mind about setting the car on fire when he saw Henson asleep in the driver’s seat. He testified on the stand that he saw a bag in the back seat of the car and decided that he was going to “borrow” it for a few days and then give it back to Henson as a message to stay away.

In the attempt to take the backpack Henson was awoken and asked Harris who he was and what he was doing.

Harris told investigators he gave Henson his name as he approached the driver’s side of the car. On the stand, Harris had little recollection of what happened next, but in a videotaped confession made just a day after the incident, Harris described stabbing Henson repeatedly in the back.

Harris told investigators and the court that Henson had a butterfly knife, though no knife or evidence of a knife was ever found at the crime scene.

Henson was able to get out of the car and was eventually able to break free and run for help. He died from multiple stab wounds on a neighbor’s front porch.

Harris testified that after Henson fled he decided to go ahead and set the car on fire. In the flare up of the flames Harris was scalded on his face, neck and arms.

The defense argued that Harris is bipolar and was in a manic state during the offense and the videotaped confession.

To prove insanity, the defense had to first convince the jury the defendant had a mental disease, defect or disorder. Then they had to prove that more likely than not the mental disorder rendered the defendant incapable of understanding the nature of his actions and that they were morally and legally wrong.

Three psychologists were called to testify in the case. Phil Trompetter testified that in his opinion Harris showed all the signs and symptoms of having bipolar one, but stopped short of stating he was insane when he Henson was stabbed. Phillip Hamm and Jocelyn Roland both testified they found no evidence Harris is bipolar and believed he knew what he was doing was morally wrong and illegal at the time of the offense.

The jury did request to hear Trompetter’s testimony read back to them during their deliberations.

The case almost ended with a mistrial Wednesday when the jury reported back to the court that they had reached a verdict on one count but were stuck at a 11 to 1 vote on the other count after four votes.

Judge Linda McFadden asked the jury if there was anything the court could do to help them render a decision one way or another. Her question was met with silence for a few moments until one juror asked if the testimony from the two psychologists called by the prosecution could be read back to the jury. Her request was followed up by another juror’s request to have the instructions read again, particularly those pertaining to expert witness testimony.

The jury reconvened at 10 a.m. and opted to not have any testimony read back. About an hour later they sent notice that they had reached a verdict.

Defense attorney Steven O’Connor requested the court postpone the sentencing because he plans to file a motion requesting a new trial for Harris. After the guilt phase and before the sanity phase, O’Connor tried to have himself removed as Harris’ attorney and refused to continue with the case because he believed he had provided inadequate representation.

The declaration earned O’Connor a rebuke from the court and his actions were disclosed to the California Bar Association.

He later changed course and decided to continue as Harris’ counsel during the sanity phase.

Harris could be facing 15 years to life sentence, plus a year for the enhancement and additional time for the arson conviction.