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Sanity phase begins for Turlock defendant
Harris Nicholas
Nicholas Harris

Six years to the day that Mark Henson lost his life in a Turlock neighborhood, a Stanislaus County jury began hearing evidence to determine if Nicholas Harris was sane or not when he stabbed the 25-year-old man.

The same jury previously found Harris guilty of second-degree murder for Henson’s death. In the sanity phase the defense has to prove to the jury that more likely than not Harris was suffering from a mental disorder and because of that disorder he was incapable of understanding the nature of his actions and that they were morally and legally wrong.

Harris was convicted of second-degree murder for the 2008 stabbing of Henson on Bennington Avenue in Turlock. He was also found guilty of arson and an enhancement of using a deadly weapon.

On the night of Aug. 11, 2008, Harris found Henson’s car parked in the area of Salem Way and Bennington Avenue. Harris admits he initially planned to slash Henson’s tires, but changed his mind and decided to set it on fire when he saw the windows were partially rolled down.

Harris returned to the car later in the evening, by which time it was Aug. 12. He had with him 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 from Harris’ girlfriend.

The attempt to take the bag woke Henson, which sparked a brief confrontation between the two men, resulting in Henson being stabbed multiple times. Henson was eventually able to break free and ran for help. He died on the front porch of a nearby home.

Harris admitted that he set the vehicle on fire after Henson ran for help.

Harris claims Henson had a butterfly knife and swung it at him several times. There was no knife or evidence of a knife recovered from the scene.

The defense claims that Harris had a history of depression, attention deficit disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder and that after his arrest he was diagnosed as a bi-polar.

Defense attorney Steven O’Connor told the jury that Harris had been undergoing an “accelerated unraveling” since 2006 and called Harris’ parents to the witness stand to describe their son’s mental state.

Tamara Harris, Nicholas Harris’ mother, recalled her son as a bright and inquisitive child, but who had difficulty focusing in school because of the attention deficit disorder. She testified they were advised to put him on Ritalin, but they opted against it.

At some point as a teenager Nicholas Harris was taken to a psychologist, who advised he take Depakote to help him deal with depression and the obsessive compulsive disorder. Tamara Harris testified they didn’t want their son medicated and decided to follow a more holistic approach. Later, Nicholas Harris was prescribed the anti-depressant Wellbutrin for a brief period of time. Nicholas Harris also at some point told a doctor he was having thoughts about hurting himself, but he later downplayed it, according to his mother.

Tamara Harris testified that in 2007 and 2008 Nicholas Harris became irritable, was losing weight, would go on “wild spending sprees” and in general had bizarre behavior that she said was out of character for her son. She stated it was after his arrest that they were told he was bi-polar.

“It was a piece of the puzzle that fit,” Tamara Harris said.

Richard Harris, Nicholas Harris’ father, testified his son would play the video game “Grand Theft Auto” repeatedly and that he talked about the games as if it was real.

Richard Harris also testified that Nicholas Harris made statements that the neighbor’s gardeners wanted to kill him. The statements were made hours after the fatal attack and prior to the family learning of Nicholas Harris’ involvement.

The defense pointed to Nicholas Harris’ plans to take the tires off Henson’s car and then burn it as proof he wasn’t in a stable frame of mind.

“It was ludicrous,” said Richard Harris.

The prosecution is attempting to use Nicholas Harris’ own words against him and prove he was sane, specifically his videotaped confession in which he describes Henson’s death as “murder.”

Testimony will resume today in Stanislaus County Superior Court.