SIOUX CITY -- Lawrence Douglas Harris was under pressure, unmedicated and trying to find a way to gain control of his life when he attempted to cast a spell in the basement of his house the day his stepdaughters were killed, his attorney told jurors in his trial today.
In a packed courtroom with tight security, Assistant Public Defender Mike Williams delivered his opening statements, saying his client was insane that day.
"Not just a little psychotic here and there. Not just a little disturbed, but insane," Williams said.
Harris, who told police he was responsible for killing Kendra Suing, 10, and Alysha Suing, 8, on Jan. 6, 2008, has pleaded not guilty to two charges of first-degree murder and is using an insanity defense. He told police the day of the killings that the girls died while he was casting a spell that "had gone bad."
Williams told the jury Harris went downstairs to cast a spell that day. He'd done it before, and it had worked for him when he succeeded in getting his infant son, who was in foster care, returned to him in Minnesota. He was trying to do the one thing that he believed would fix the problems in his life, Williams said. Instead, it had the opposite effect.
The jury heard testimony from Sherry Clark of Oro Grande, Calif., about Harris' childhood, including that he was hospitalized three times after suicide attempts. Clark testified that Harris frequently went to her house when he ran away from home. She told the jury Harris' mother was verbally abusive to her son as well as to Clark herself and others, screaming obscenities and telling Clark, a practicing Wiccan, that she would go to hell.
Clark said on the witness stand that Harris had self-destructive tendencies and once stabbed himself in the hand with a safety pin. The wound became infected.
Also testifying for the defense, Helen Berger, a sociology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, explained something of Wicca, satanism and paganism and said Wicca is not about violence and killing. She said Wiccans believe that anything they do, good or bad, comes back to them threefold.
Harris told police he practiced his own form of witchcraft and demonstrated for a detective how he had performed a ritual the day of the killings. Investigators recovered books about various occult practices from the Harris family's rented home on Nebraska Street.
Curing cross-examination of Berger, Assistant Woodbury County Attorney Mark Campbell produced an inverted pentagram that was found with Harris' ritual items in the basement. "The Satanic Bible" refers to use of an inverted pentagram during rituals. Berger said the symbol is not part of Wiccan practices.
Nancy Webb, a child-care advocate, testified that she had worked with the family because Harris' son, who was 2 when the girls died, has developmental problems resulting from fetal alcohol syndrome. She said she never observed anything alarming and that Harris behaved like a normal father.
Read more of this story Saturday in the Journal and at siouxcityjournal.com. Follow the trial proceedings on a live blog at siouxcityjournal.com, and see documents, archived stories and video interviews at siouxcityjournal.com/harristrial.