PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Christopher Harris insisted he didn’t beat all five of his former in-laws to death in their central Illinois home, only the 14-year-old boy who Harris said was slaughtering his own family when Harris wandered into the house late one night in 2009.
A jury didn’t believe Harris, convicting him Friday on five first-degree murder charges after about five hours of deliberations. The 34-year-old faces a mandatory life sentence.
Harris sat quietly as the verdict was read count by count — including home invasion and other lesser charges —dropping his head into his hands before being led away in handcuffs.
Harris was found guilty of using a tire iron to kill 39-year-old Ruth Gee; Ruth’s husband, 46-year-old Raymond “Rick” Gee; Rick’s son 11-year-old son Austin Gee; and Ruth’s children, 16-year-old Justina Constant and the 14-year-old boy, Dillen Constant. All five died inside the family’s home in the small town of Beason, about 160 southwest of Chicago. The Gees’ then-3-year-old daughter, Tabitha, was beaten but survived.
Harris had been married to Rick Gee’s adult daughter, Nicole Gee, who was not in the house. The two had reconciled, but broke up again just days before the Sept. 21, 2009, killings.
Logan County State’s Attorney Jonathan Wright said Friday that the guilty verdicts provided some justice for the victims, particularly Dillen, who defense attorneys portrayed as a troubled boy prone to violence.
“It’s emotional to know that Dillen was vindicated,” Wright said. “It’s emotional to know that justice was done.”
Defense attorney Dan Fultz told reporters that he went into the case knowing it would be difficult to convince a jury to acquit Harris, in part because of evidence from the Gee home; partly because Harris often lied to police; and because, according to testimony, Harris slept with a former girlfriend the morning after the killings.
One particularly damning piece of evidence, Fultz said, was a pathologist’s testimony that Dillen was immobile or close to it for most of the more than 50 blows he suffered.
“That fact that someone hit him repeatedly is problematic,” Fultz said. “It can’t be denied.”
Juror Seth Jones agreed that the evidence against Harris was strong, including a bloody palm print that matched Harris’ found on a bathroom counter above Austin Gee’s body.
“I honestly was really looking through everything to try and find something to say he’s not guilty,” said Jones, who is 19. “All the evidence against was way too stacked up against him.”
A number of the Gee family’s relatives were in court. All declined comment. One, a woman who only identified herself as family, hugged Jones in the hallway outside the courtroom.
“Thank you so much,” she said as she cried.
“Stay strong,” Jones told her.
Harris did not dispute that he and his brother, Jason Harris, drank, smoked marijuana and used cocaine on Sept. 20, 2009. He told the court they went to the Gees’ home to buy more marijuana. Harris said when he walked into the house around 1 a.m. Sept. 21, he saw Rick, Ruth and Austin Gee all badly hurt or dead. He said he then fought Dillen.
But Jason Harris told the court he believed they went to the Gee’s home that night because his brother — after a night of failed attempts to convince several women to join him —wanted to have sex with Justina Constant.
Jason Harris, who is now 25, said his brother went into the home with a tire iron. Harris said he listened, frightened, from outside, to screams and loud thuds. And he said he watched Christopher Harris briefly beat Dillen outside the house.
Afterward, Jason Harris said, Christopher Harris admitted he’d killed all five: “I (messed) up. I killed them all.”
Jason Harris also initially lied to police, too, and helped his brother burn bloody clothes and dispose of the tire iron and other evidence. Jason Harris was at one point charged with murder but agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges that, with time served and good behavior, could see him freed from prison in six years.
He also has a prior conviction for perjury, something defense lawyers emphasized. Jones, the juror, said he only trusted portions of Jason Harris’ testimony that were backed up by evidence.
One defense witness, an expert from Iowa State University on video game violence, testified that based on records from school and elsewhere, Dillen had a number of risk factors for potential violence: He had twice pulled knives on his older sister, performed poorly at school and had a penchant for violent video games.
Rick and Ruth Gee’s drug use and open sexual relationship were potential problems, too, said the expert, Craig Anderson.
But Judge Scott Drazewski barred Anderson — who never met Dillen or any of his family — from offering his opinion on whether the teen was capable of committing the murders.