Sir Mario Owens: Defense Claims Government Misconduct in Death-Penalty Case

Dexter Harris has provided the police with information on so many murders committed by other people that it's hard to keep it all straight. Yesterday morning, grilled in great detail in Arapahoe County District Court about his role as a confidential informant and key witness in the 2008 death sentences doled out to Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, Harris pleaded a bad memory -- and conceded that he was "probably high" on cocaine during at least some of his previous court appearances in the convoluted case.

"It's been a long time, man," Harris grumbled on the stand, after complaining that defense attorneys had "placed my life in danger repeatedly" by forcing him to testify about his jailhouse snitching.

See also: Sir Mario Owens: Attorneys Decry Secrecy in Death-Penalty Case

The hearing before Judge Gerald Rafferty was the first opportunity attorneys for Owens have had to present evidence in open court in support of their claim that the high-profile trials of their client and Ray were tainted by government misconduct. The alleged bad behavior includes a failure to disclose information to the defense and supposed "incentives" awarded to reluctant witnesses to persuade them to testify -- for example, as we first reported in 2011, the highly unusual decision by prosecutors to donate a car to one witness and pay for auto insurance, while failing to report that arrangement to the defense before trial.

In separate trials, Owens and co-defendant Ray were both sentenced to death for the 2005 murder of Javad Marshall-Fields; Marshall-Fields had been expected to testify against the two men in another homicide investigation. (Owens also received the death penalty for the murder of Marshall-Fields's fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, while Ray got life without parole for her death.) Their prosecution, one of several death-penalty cases pursued by former Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers, was conducted in an atmosphere of exceptionally stringent security, with attorneys subject to gag orders, many court motions filed under seal, witness names purged from documents and transcripts denied to news organizations -- all ostensibly to protect witnesses from possible intimidation and reprisals. Although Judge Rafferty finally made a redacted version of the court records publicly available earlier this year, many details, including the identity or location of some witnesses referred to by names such as "Source 56," remain secret.

Defense attorneys have contended that the security measures put them at a serious disadvantage, hampering their ability to interview witnesses or impeach them. At yesterday's hearing, Owens attorney Jim Castle told Rafferty that his team was still learning new details about the degree to which Harris was involved in assisting police in various drug and homicide investigations. Meanwhile, Harris, who'd previously admitted to having "some misgivings" about the testimony he'd provided at trial against Ray and Owens, accused the defense team of trying to intimidate him and extracting information from him under duress.

Now 53 and serving a 64-year sentence for aggravated robbery, Harris was in the Arapahoe County jail on domestic violence charges in 2006 when, he says, the much younger Ray found out they knew some of the same people in the Gangster Disciples and began boasting to him about the Marshall-Fields homicide.

"He was trying to explain his case to me," Harris testified yesterday. "We were affiliated with the same gang. It wasn't remorseful statements. He was trying to find ways to beat the case."

At the time, Harris conceded, he was feeling the pains of cocaine withdrawal and was eager to get out of jail -- but unable to make bond. "I'm going to get the fuck out of here any fucking way I can," he told his wife during one phone call. About two weeks later, he wrote a letter to the Arapahoe County District Attorney, claiming to have "vital information" about the Marshall-Fields slaying and other homicides.

After meeting with Aurora police detectives, Harris was able to obtain a personal recognizance bond. He assisted Aurora PD in an attempted undercover drug buy (that evidently led to no arrests), received lodging and King Soopers gift cards from the government as a protected witness, and continued to get high and rack up probation violations and new charges. He also provided information to police concerning two other homicides -- apparently derived from other jailhouse braggarts -- but it's not clear if that led to any real breaks in those cases.

Castle was openly skeptical of Harris's claim that he came forward with his information because he doesn't condone murder. "Why do all these people charged with murder and attempted murder tell you all these details about their cases?" he asked.

Harris smiled. "You would have to ask them," he said.

Owens sat motionless at the defense table throughout much of the morning -- like Harris, shackled and wearing orange Arapahoe County jail scrubs. Testimony in his bid for post-conviction relief is expected to continue through the rest of this week.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast