For the first time the jury in the murder case against Turlock resident Nicholas Harris got to hear the detailed and at times graphic description of what happened the night 25-year-old Mark Henson was stabbed to death, and it came from the defendant himself.
Harris is standing trial for murder and arson for the death of Henson on Aug. 12, 2008.
In one of the final elements of the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office case against Harris, the prosecution presented the nearly four-hour long video recording of Harris describing what happened the night Henson died.
In a very forthright manner and without omitting details, Harris recounts to Turlock Police Detective Jason Tosta his original plan in dealing with Henson and how things all went awry.
“This all went wrong,” Harris tells the detective during his interview.
Harris states in the video that he first went looking for Henson because he believed Henson had been stalking his girlfriend Vanessa Bartlett and that it was his duty to put a stop to it by sending Henson a message. Bartlett previously testified she and Henson had dated briefly that it had ended long before she started dating Harris and she did not perceive Henson to be stalking her. She stated she had seen Henson three times in three weeks prior to his death when he came into the store where she worked and ordered sandwiches from the deli.
Harris said he went walking in the area he knew Henson’s mother lived and eventually came across Henson’s car. He stated his original plan was to slash the tires later that night, but when he saw that the windows were down he changed direction.
“I thought ‘I’m going to burn his car,’” Harris told Tosta. “I don’t know where that came from.”
In the video, Harris stated he was going to take the tires off the car, put them into the car and then set the vehicle on fire.
“How would he know it wasn’t just some Joe Schmoe out there who set his car on fire?” Tosta asked. “How were you going to give him the message?”
“I was going to leave a slice of bread, like a sandwich on his hood,” Harris replied.
Harris described assembling everything he would need to set Henson’s car ablaze, including gasoline he poured into a kitty litter container so in his retelling it would look less suspicious, a jack, a tire iron, a lighter, and two towels.
“Earlier you referred to this as a job and that you got the tools you would need,” Tosta said later during the interview. "So, why bring the knife? It doesn’t make sense that you would take a knife to burn a car.”
“It was just one less thing to think about,” Harris answered. “It was already on my belt.”
Harris said he was preparing to take one of the back tires off when he noticed Henson reclined and asleep in the front driver’s side seat.
“I totally blanked out,” Harris said. “I didn’t know what to do. It either goes down or it doesn’t.”
Harris also recounted seeing a bag in the back seat of Henson’s car and stated he had the idea that he could go through the bag and take something of value, which the defense claims he was going to hold onto as a way of forcing Henson to quit talking to Bartlett.
Harris said he reached through the open window to open the door, which is when Henson woke up. Harris described Henson as being startled and asking Harris who he was and what was he doing. He also told the detective he saw Henson reach for something that Harris said turned out to be a butterfly knife.
“I reached for my knife instinctively,” Harris said.
What happened next Harris described as a “final showdown.” He said he draped a towel over his arm and pushed it into Henson’s face. With his other arm he reached around through the back window and tried to stab Henson in the throat, but missed and instead started stabbing him in the back. Harris said Henson was able to get out of the car and turned toward him with the butterfly knife. Harris told the detective Henson was trying to stab him in the arm, but that he was either missing or the blade wasn’t open because he didn’t receive any puncture wounds. Harris said it was at this time that he went after Henson again, stabbing him several more times before taking a step back, at which point Henson ran from the scene screaming for help.
According to the autopsy report, Henson sustained more than 15 stab wounds during the attack.
While Henson tried in vain to get help on Bennington Avenue, Harris continued with the plan to set the car on fire. He told Tosta he poured the bucket of gasoline into the car and then reached in with the lit lighter.
“There was an immediate backdraft that was three to four feet,” Harris recounted. “It burned my face, my hands, my knee where there was a hole in my jeans. I took off running back to my house where I hosed myself off for about an hour.”
Harris said the following day he explained the burns to his family by saying he got them while standing over a barbeque.
The video interview also confirmed Bartlett’s testimony that she spoke to Harris twice that day. The first time she relayed the news of Henson’s death and asked if Harris had anything to do with it. During the second phone call Harris admitted to Bartlett he was responsible for Henson’s death.
“She knew it was me,” Harris recounted to Tosta. “I told her I did it. I knew we were over. There was no second chance for us.”
Harris said he left that day for a family camping trip and he was pondering if he would turn himself in or if he would commit suicide.
“I was either going to come back and face the music or I was going to take a long walk into the mountains and not come back,” Harris said.
At no point in the interview did Harris try to lessen his culpability in Henson’s death.
“Obviously, I refer to it as murder because I’m standing here and he isn’t,” Harris explained to the detective. “It’s horrible.”
The defense is hoping the jury won’t agree with Harris’ statement as they seek a conviction on a lesser charge of manslaughter.
Testimony is expected to resume Tuesday.