Harris juror talks about trial

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 9, 2005

The jury foreman from one of the state's most gruesome murder cases said he would have mixed feelings if the judge reverses the jury's recommendation to spare the convicted killer's life.

Westley Devon Harris was found guilty in the shooting deaths of six members of his girlfriend's family at their Crenshaw County farm. Harris was accused of killing the family of Janice Ball throughout the day on Aug. 26, 2002. He was charged with killing her parents, her three teenage brothers and her grandmother while holding Ball, who was 16 at the time, and their 17-month-old daughter captive.

The sequestered jury found Harris guilty of the crime – but on June 16 recommended by a 7-5 vote a sentence of life without parole after deliberating in the penalty phase of the trial.

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Circuit Judge Ed McFerrin is expected to sentence Harris on July 13. He is not bound by the jury's recommendation. In fact, Alabama Attorney General Troy King has petitioned the court to override the jury and impose the death sentence on Harris.

Rod Campbell, the jury foreman, said he understands those who demand the death penalty in this case. But he also knows what went into the deliberations and is very protective of the jurors as a whole. King's implication that the jurors didn't "do their duty" isn't true.

"Part of me would agree with it and part of me would hate to see it," Campbell said of the scenario where Judge McFerrin imposes the death penalty. "I believe there are certain things you can't be allowed to get away with. This was premeditated. It took all day to do. It's the most horrible thing you can imagine – somebody coming into your home and killing your family. Certainly, the punishment would fit the crime."

And yet, seven of the 12 jurors recommended his life be spared.

"The jurors were sincere in their decision," he said. "They voted their conscience. I have nothing but good feelings for the people on the jury. I've got nothing bad to say about them. Everybody had a say and everybody had a vote."

Asked if he would be outraged if their recommendation was turned aside by the judge, Campbell said no.

"I'd hate to make that call," he said. "I was glad it wasn't up to me. I had help from 11 other people. For one guy to have to do that, I guess that's why he's a judge."

Campbell said the penalty phase was much more intense and difficult to ponder than the regular trial, in which the jury was asked to find guilt or innocence.

"It doesn't get more serious than that," Campbell said. "The evidence, I thought, was overwhelming connecting him to it. And brutal. That's what struck me. The photographs. It almost didn't seem real."

The trial started on May 31 and ended with jury's penalty recommendation on June 16.

Campbell said being sequestered from his family was "the longest four weeks of my life."

Sequestered juries stay together and are supervised throughout a trial. The Harris jury stayed at Troy's Holiday Inn and was taken via shuttle bus or van to the Crenshaw County courthouse in Luverne each day. It was the second trial for Harris. The first case was dismissed due to jury tampering. Clearly, efforts were taken to keep the jurors away from similar controversy.

If 16 nights in a hotel sounds like a great deal, think again. The jurors were two to a room. No televisions, radios or newspapers were permitted.

"Other than being away from my family, the loss of little civic privileges was the hardest part," Campbell said. "I like to watch the news shows. We couldn't do that. We couldn't watch shows like Law & Order or CSI. About the only cop show we could watch was Andy Griffith."

Campbell was part of a 475-person jury pool. He knew nothing about the case other than hearing folks talk about it on the street. "When I got the summons, I thought, 'I wonder if that case is coming up this time? I hope this isn't for that,'" Campbell recalled.

As part of the enormous pool, he was called to the courthouse several times as jurors were being selected.

"I noticed each time I went back, there were fewer and fewer people," Campbell said.

At some point, McFerrin told prospective jurors that they could possibly be sequestered throughout the trial. On Tuesday morning, May 31, the jury was selected. Campbell was the second person seated.

"They told us we had three hours to get home, get some stuff packed and get back to the courthouse," Campbell said. "They told us to bring at least a week's worth of clothes and that we could be there 14 days or more. We had a common room with a TV, but there weren't TVs in our rooms. We had the buffet every morning and night. We got one phone call at night so we could call home. It was monitored, though. It was a little more repressive than I thought it would be. I understand the need for it, but by the end of the trial I had lost three weeks. It was weird.

"I guess, to me, the surprising thing was they gave us the power to make life and death decisions about this case – but they couldn't trust us enough to let us watch CNN. I've been corrupted by TV for 40-something years. I found out I wouldn't be a good prisoner."

Supervised family visits were allowed on Sundays for an hour or two. Campbell and another juror celebrated birthdays during the trial. One of his phone calls went to a Montgomery hospital, where an uncle had heart surgery that day. He checked on him instead of calling home.

He said most jurors woke up around 6 a.m. and got to breakfast around 6:45. They loaded into the vans and, most days, would be in Luverne around 8:30, Campbell said.

"They would take us straight to the jury room and wait to be called into the courtroom," he said. "Everybody got along real well. We'd cut up and laugh at dinner. We tried to keep it light when we were away from the courthouse. But the further the trial went the quieter everybody got on the ride to and from. It was very serious when we were deliberating. Everyone was cordial. We listened to each other's opinions and everybody got their say."

During the trial, jurors heard testimony from Janice Ball, who testified Harris tied her up during his killing spree. She also testified he rounded up all the guns in the house and trailer that was home to the Ball family.

"His own friends testified he told them he did it," Campbell said. "The evidence, her testimony, which seemed credible, all that was pretty convincing."

The defense suggested Ball, the ex-girlfriend who claimed she had been sexually abused by her father and a brother, had a motive to want them dead. Attorneys noted Ball didn't behave like a terrified victim when she hid out with Harris after the killings.

"Some people suggested drug dealers were involved. Other people wondered if the girl (Ball) was involved," Campbell said. "But I just saw no evidence of that. That question wasn't before us anyway. It was to see if he was guilty or innocent."

The jury returned a guilty verdict after several hours of deliberation.

Campbell recalled the emotion in the courtroom and jury room.

"It was very serious, very somber," he said, confirming reports that some jurors were crying when the guilty verdicts were read.

But they knew their job was far from over.

"We knew it was going to be a two-phase process," Campbell said. "The judge told us that at the beginning."

The penalty phase was harder.

"That was new emotional territory for me," he said. "Knowing you hold life or death. Nobody wants that. But we all took an oath at the beginning of the trial that said we could do it."

Jurors were instructed that it would take a simple majority, 7-5, to find for life without possibility of parole. To recommend the death sentence, at least a 10-2 vote was required.

"We went around the table and talked about questions we had," Campbell said. "Everybody had the chance to say something. That's the way I tried to run it. After a couple hours, we took a vote and it came out 7-5 for life. One vote was all we took."

When the trial ended, jurors were taken back to the Holiday Inn to get their belongings.

Campbell had his wife meet him there.

"I didn't need another trip on the van," he said. "I was ready to go home."

It was over – but not completely. Two days later Campbell was at a family wedding and the relatives were chirping at him.

"Somebody asked me what was wrong with us. How come we didn't kill that guy?" Campbell said.

Welcome home.