Witnesses describe car and clothing, but can't verify identity
After five days of testimony in the murder trial of Session Harper, the state's prosecution team rested its case Wednesday. The defense will begin to call its witnesses today at 9 a.m. in the Buena Vista County Courthouse. Court officials expect that the trial could wrap up by Friday or Saturday.
Sharon Harper, wife of the accused, took the stand Wednesday. She testified that she could not remember much of the day on January 8, 2006 - the day her husband is accused of raping 22-year-old Holly Michael of Fort Dodge and setting her body and home on fire. Due to psychological problems and stress, Sharon Harper could not recall information even after being shown a review of earlier statements she reportedly made with Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations agent Ray Fiedler.
Fiedler testified that Sharon Harper had earlier recalled Sessions Harper being home for about 10 minutes before leaving again on the day of the crime.
She had said he was dressed in a black leather coat with a hood. A witnesses living near the scene described seeing a black man in a coat, and when Harper put on the jacket in the courtroom, the witness said it was "pretty close" to what had been seen.
Harper's attorney, Michael Williams of the Sioux City Public Defender's office, noted that descriptions differed somewhat from the actual color and style of Harper's jacket.
Harper's wife also told Fielder that she had gone to Des Moines to see a friend but refused to give any information on who she had seen or where she went.
The defense objected to Fielder's testimony, claiming it was hearsay. Defense attorney Mike Williams asked Fiedler why he did not tape record the interview with Mrs. Harper.
"We wanted to make the interviewing process as low key as possible and the decision was made to use hand-written notes," Fiedler said. He added that Sharon Harper was very cooperative.
State Medical Examiner Dr. Julia Goodin also testified on Wednesday about her report on the autopsy of Holly Michael.
Goodin said on the stand that she believed from her investigation that Michael was murdered. She stated that with 50 percent of Michael's body covered in third or fourth degree burns along with smoke inhalation that she was clearly burned on purpose. Goodin also agreed that she was "surprised" that Michael lived for 18 days after going to the hospital.
Pictures of the autopsy were shown during Goodin's testimony. The graphic images showed the extensive burning of the body. The examiner said she found no blunt force trauma to the head.
While Sessions Harper did not show any emotional reaction to the photos, some members of a group there in support of Michael and her family left the courtroom, and others could only look away.
On Tuesday, the prosecutors had called witness Joey Dowell, who testified that a "black male" had been seen fidgeting with his keys to get into a red car" at the scene.
Dowell said that the person had on a coat with a gray hooded sweatshirt. She described the garment but was not sure about the color.
The defense had Harper try on his black leather jacket with a hood for Dowell who could not confirm that was the jacket she saw.
Husband and wife James and Shelly Leith also testified that they had noticed a red car in front of their residence near the Michael home.
Shelly said she saw the red car when she took her children to Sunday school and she when she returned home around 9 a.m. She believed that the car was a Pontiac Grand Am or a Grand Prix.
James said that he noticed the car when returning home from work around 8 a.m. He said he saw the Oldsmobile logo on the car and testified he saw a spoiler on the back of the car. Both witnesses claimed to hear start up and leave around 10 a.m. But neither saw the driver.
The fire was reported at about 9:40 a.m.
Harper's mother in law owns a red 2003 Olds Alero that she allowed her daughter to use, and Sessions Harper was said to drive it at times.
McDowell said that photographs shown of the mother-in-law's car matched what she saw parked near her home. In cross examination, she said she could not verify that the man she saw was Harper.
"You never ever said that this man is the person you saw?" Sessions' attorney asked.
McDowell replied, "No I did not."
Bob Frosechner of U.S. Cellular was called to explain the process of tracking telephone calls. State Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown inquired about cell phones having Global Positioning Service.
"It was recently passed that all new cell phones will be required to have Gobal Positioning Service units, but it wasn't in the past," Frosechner said. "There is no way outside of emergency 911 calls currently to pinpoint a caller, but I can give you a general area."
He showed that Harper had received calls from people in the Fort Dodge area and that he made a call south of Fort Dodge.
Arika Schuerman and Britney Koster both testified of having romantic relations with Sessions Harper prior to January 8, 2006. Another witness earlier in the trial said that she had intercourse with Harper the day before Michael was attacked.
Koster had reportedly purchased Harper's phone and paid his outstanding bill for the phone.
Sessions Harper faces charges of first degree murder, first degree arson, first degree sexual assault and first degree kidnapping. Iowa does not have the possibility of death penalty, but Harper could if found guilty on all charges receive up to five life sentences. First degree murder carries a sentences of life in prison without chance of parole.
Earlier in the trial, medical personnel at the Fort Dodge hospital where Michael was taken testified that Holly Michael had told them that Harper had raped her, bound her and set the fires. Two friends of Michael testified that they, Harper and Michael had been at Michael's home the night before, drinking and taking drugs.