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Sudden Passion, My Foot!

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and
Clara Harris cried Friday after a Houston jury sentenced her to 20 years in prison for killing her husband, David, by repeatedly running him over with her car last summer. They certainly didn't look like tears of joy but they should have been. A 20-year prison term for a first-degree murder conviction in Texas is a pie-in-the-sky legal result if I have ever seen one. Don't believe me? Ask the fellow who was sentenced to death in Texas even after his lawyer slept through portions of his trial.

If Harris were a man, we would have seen a life sentence in this case. If Harris were a minority defendant, we would have seen a life sentence in this case (given the state of prosecutorial discretion these days, we might even have seen a capital case). If David Harris hadn't been an adulterer, we would have seen a life sentence in this case.

But Clara Harris is a weepy, white, professional woman, someone whose marital troubles generated a lot of sympathy in and out of court. And so she will walk out of prison in about 10 years or so (with time off for good behavior and parole).

With a compromise verdict that sent them home in time for Valentine's Day dinner, Harris' jurors found that she, had, indeed, been under a spell of "sudden passion" when she repeatedly speed-bumped her husband last July. And then, having signaled that they understood her pain, they gave her the maximum sentence available for a "sudden passion" case. Although I don't know for sure, I suspect some jurors wanted to give her more, some wanted to give her less, and this is where they ended up after a long and emotional trial.

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Good news for Harris. Bad news for tough justice, a Texas trademark. And I just don't get it. To me, "sudden passion" isn't searching in vain to see if your husband is cheating (again), confronting him and his mistress (and ripping off the mistress' blouse), and then tracking him down and gunning the engine while his daughter pleads with you from the front seat to stop. And yet that's precisely what this result suggests. Since when did Harris County, Texas -- also known as the "capitol" of capital punishment in America -- suddenly turn so touchy-feely?

What's remarkable about this result is not how effectively Harris' attorneys were able to turn a rage-filled, vengeful killer into someone jurors could empathize with. After all, that's what lawyers are paid to do and it isn't that difficult for people to put themselves in the shoes of someone whose spouse isn't faithful.

What's remarkable is how easily this case turned on the head of the recent trend in murder trials to de-humanize the defendant and to beatify the victim. By verdict day, Clara Harris was practically a saint and David Harris was practically a thug, all thanks to a curious confluence of law and fact.

Clara Harris, you see, wasn't a ruthless thug who stalked her husband for hours, ran him over again and again, and then rushed up to him as he lay dying so she could utter a few cruel words that would be the last he would hear. She was a humiliated wife whose husband had actually had the temerity to tell her why he felt he had to get and stay involved with another woman. Clara Harris wasn't someone who killed the father of the young lady who happened to be in that car with her -- the young woman who was screaming at her the whole time to stop. She was someone whose prison sentence should have been shortened because of the kids she would have left behind.

And there's David Harris. He wasn't a good father who was killed right in front of his daughter's eyes. He was a cad, a fellow who refused to promptly and completely return to his spouse when she asked him to. He wasn't someone who had a full, rich, rest of his life to live, someone who had not broken the law, someone with three children. He was someone who, even in the prosecution's version of things, deserved to lose his house, his money, and his respect because of his affair. The only thing the prosecution and the defense disagreed about at trial is that prosecutors said that Clara Harris wasn't allowed to kill David while the defense said that, in the circumstances, she was.

Every trial I have ever followed or covered has left me with a lesson. But I don't yet know what lesson the Harris case has taught me. As I wrote earlier this week, how does Texas now look Andrea Yates in the face? She killed when she was severely mentally ill, but apparently in Texas it's more forgivable to kill in the heat of passion than it is to kill when clinically and certifiably sick. And what about those victims' rights groups?

Should their mantra now be: victims have rights and must be avenged unless society doesn't approve of their legal behavior while they were living? Or perhaps it should be: victims have rights and must be avenged when they are women or children but not when they are cheating, lying husbands?

Maybe so. I don't know. Texas surprised me last year by showing no mercy to Andrea Yates. It has surprised me again by showing an awful lot of mercy to Clara Harris, despite her tears.

By Andrew Cohen

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