“The last thing Jason Harper saw was not his three precious children, his parents, or his brother. The last thing Jason Harper saw was the barrel of the gun that Julie Harper held.” These emotional words began the closing argument of Deputy District Attorney Keith Watanabe on October 6, 2015, in the murder retrial of Julie Elizabeth Harper. On the morning of August 7, 2012, Julie Harper fatally shot her schoolteacher husband, Jason Harper, in the master bedroom of their Carlsbad home, while their three young children watched cartoons downstairs. Both Julie Harper and Jason Harper were thirty nine.
In her first trial one year ago, Julie Harper testified she was the victim of verbal and sexual abuse during her ten year marriage, and that she accidentally shot her 6’6” husband during a violent argument in which she feared she would be raped or killed. A jury acquitted her of first degree murder in October of 2014, but could not agree on the lesser charges. A new jury of seven women and five men must now determine whether the shooting death was second degree murder, manslaughter, or whether she acted in justifiable self-defense after enduring years of abuse.
The Prosecution’s Case By Deputy District Attorney Keith Watanabe:
In a dramatic opening, prosecutor Watanabe pulled a life sized mannequin before the jury with an arrow inserted at the point the bullet entered Jason Harper’s body. He told the jury that the most reliable piece of evidence in the case was “this mortal wound” in Jason Harper’s upper left side, underneath his left arm, which showed that Jason Harper was trying to get away. “Jason Harper turned to get out of the way of fire. Jason Harper wanted to live, but Julie Harper would not let him.” Watanabe said that the forensic evidence showed that Jason Harper was not shot at close range but from a distance, and that the shooter had to be slightly behind him.
The death occurred during an “intense verbal fight” continued Watanabe. Jason Harper had screamed and yelled at Julie Harper many times in the past, but this time Julie was not going to take it as she had had enough contended Watanabe. She chose to pull the trigger and end his life. “But did the verbal abuse, the swearing and yelling justify killing a human being?” asked Watanabe.
Julie Harper killed her husband intentionally out of “anger, bitterness and scorn,” argued Watanabe. She was deeply hurt emotionally by Jason Harper, and her dreams of a happy marriage and suburban life had been destroyed. She blamed Jason Harper. “There is a motive. Don’t let the defense tell you there’s not,” said Watanabe. He displayed a beautiful photo of the couple on their wedding day, saying they had started out with hopes and dreams. When they married, Julie Harper didn’t know that she would be verbally abused, and Jason Harper didn’t know that he would end up staring down the barrel of a gun.
The prosecutor then took the jury back to the year before the killing, to the time of “Julie’s deterioration.” Julie Harper was addicted to narcotic drugs claimed Watanabe, which had been prescribed for her autoimmune disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and she was sleeping most of the day while the children were left unattended. The police found fifty-two prescription pill bottles in the home on the day of Jason Harper’s death. She also spent excessively and became a hoarder, with clothes burgeoning out of the closet and clutter piled everywhere. Jason Harper grew angry and the couple argued frequently. The marriage was falling apart and headed for divorce.
In the week before the killing, Julie Harper was not a woman in fear and her actions showed that she was capable of taking matters into her own hands said Watanabe. She took $9,000 from Jason’s personal account by forging his signature, removed over $11,000 from their daughter’s college fund, placed money in a new safety deposit box, and filed for divorce. “She was not a domestic violence victim without resources or hope,” maintained Watanabe.
On the morning of the shooting, Julie Harper had a “window of safety” to escape so the need to kill her husband was not imminent said Watanabe. An argument initially began over Jason Harper’s computer, and at one point he walked out the front door. “If Julie Harper was so afraid, she could have left at this time,” declared Watanabe. Later Jason Harper returned and went on his computer for thirteen minutes, a time when Julie Harper could have again left the home.
After killing her husband, Julie Harper’s actions were “not what you would do if you killed in self-defense” argued Watanabe. She was not crying, did not try to perform CPR, never called 911, and never sought help from the police at any time during the entire day. Instead she embarked on a “day of deceit” in which she tried to cover up what she had done. Immediately after shooting her husband, she concealed his body, disposed of his keys and wallet, took his cell phone and sent a deceptive message to his family, took the children to La Costa Coffee where she purchased coffee and pastries, and then tried to arrange playdates for them detailed Watanabe. She later returned to the home where she assembled a “getaway bag” containing $39,000 in cash, passports for her and the children, social security cards, and other financial documents claimed Watanabe. She then moved Jason Harper’s car, deleted his text messages and call history, removed the batteries from his cell phone, turned off her own cell phone, and hid the murder weapon.
In disposing of the gun, Julie Harper was suppressing evidence. “If that doesn’t show evidence of guilt, I don’t know what does!” exclaimed Watanabe. Julie Harper was lying about what she did with the gun, and still has the gun or knows where it is today he told the jury. Since Julie Harper was claiming the shooting was accidental, it was essential to have the actual gun to measure the exact trigger pull and to perform distance testing. This was not an accidental shooting stressed Watanabe as Julie Harper was experienced with firearms, and it took effort for her to fire the gun with a ten pound trigger pull.
Attorney Watanabe dismissed Julie Harper’s claim of physical and sexual abuse, stating that Julie Harper was lying. “Julie Harper is asking you to believe that Jason Harper, with no history of violence, was really a secret rapist.” Julie Harper was lying about her notations in her day-timer that “sex” was really a code for “rape.” She never listed rapes in her divorce filing and never made the claim to her family or friends. Watanabe acknowledged that there was verbal abuse, that Jason Harper used profanity in front of the children, and on one occasion he grabbed Julie Harper’s wrist and twisted her arm. “But there was no other domestic violence in this case,” insisted Watanabe. “Julie Harper kept journals in which she documented every minutia of her life but there is not one single mention of abuse in them,” proclaimed Watanabe. The children testified that they had never seen their father hurt their mother.
Prosecutor Watanabe closed by saying that Julie Harper was not being raped on the morning of the shooting as she never called 911 and reported that she was being raped, Jason Harper was found with his belt still on, and there was “not a single injury or bruise on her body” at the time she surrendered to the police. He said Julie Harper and Jason Harper were engaged in a verbal argument only, which did not justify using deadly force. He asked the jury to find Julie Harper guilty of second degree murder by finding either that she intentionally killed her husband, or by finding that she had a conscious disregard for human life by pointing a loaded gun at her husband during a verbal argument.
The Defense’s Case By Criminal Defense Attorney Paul Pfingst:
Defense attorney Paul Pfingst countered that Julie Harper was indeed an abused spouse, who had endured years of verbal abuse and sexual attacks, including being raped approximately thirty times. He stressed that Julie Harper had no history of violence and only killed her 6’ 6” husband while defending herself from another sexual attack during a violent argument after she revealed for the very first time that she had filed for divorce. He disputed that Julie Harper shot her husband from behind, stating that the medical examiner testified that the location of the gun and Jason Harper could not be determined by the wound location or bullet path. Jason Harper was shot in his upper left side.
Attorney Pfingst presented two scenarios and asked the jury which one was more plausible: That a mother of three decides one day to get a gun and shoot her husband dead for no reason while the children were watching television, or that the day her husband finds out she has filed for divorce, he attacks her. “She didn’t just turn into an assassin,” he said. Julie Harper had gone to the court to end her abuse, and a divorce filing creates anger in an abuser as it ends his control explained Pfingst.
Julie Harper was a victim of domestic violence, which was an undisputed fact in the case argued Pfingst. She was emotionally, verbally, physically, and sexually abused by her husband, and the abuse was triggered by rages connected to finances. “She has an abusive husband who is demeaning her, treating her like garbage,” said Pfingst. Jason Harper had an explosive temper, was profane and threatening, and even the children said so continued Pfingst. He reminded the jury of the testimony of the two older children, who were six and eight at the time of the shooting, that their mother would lock herself in the bedroom to be safe, and that their father took off the door knobs so that she could no longer lock the door. “This is such a staggering revelation. A neon sign, a warning. I have to run to the bedroom to be safe! Who do you know that has to do this?” thundered Pfingst.
Julie Harper made notations in her day-timer about the rapes, using “sex” as a code for “rape.” The state of Julie Harper and Jason Harper’s union was “toxic,” so she was not recording beautiful marital relations with her husband stated Pfingst. She sent this documentation of abuse to her ex-boyfriend, Jerome, who had remained a good friend. “Who do you know that has to do this? This is a statement about fear, another neon sign that says, Fear! Fear! Fear!” exclaimed Pfingst.
Attorney Pfingst then turned to the law of rape, stating that it used to be the law that a man could not rape his wife, and that although the law has been changed, some attitudes still remain unchanged. “People still won’t believe there is abuse unless you are pummeled and bloody. People still believe that an abused spouse should just leave,” said Pfingst. He highlighted the testimony of Dr. Mindy Mechanic, the defense’s domestic violence expert, who testified that 80% of intimate partner sexual assault victims never tell anyone about the abuse, and that it takes six to seven attempts to leave the abusive relationship. Dr. Mechanic discussed barriers to leaving, which included children, religion, finances, shame, humiliation, and fear of retaliation. The reality is that if the wife reveals the abuse, the husband will lose his job and the income for the family explained Pfingst. Dr. Mechanic further testified that it was a common pattern for women to exhaust every effort to fix their relationship. She concluded that Julie Harper was a victim of sexual violence in her marriage, and that her behavior was consistent with that of a domestic violence victim.
Attorney Pfingst reminded the jury of the video and audio recordings that Julie Harper had secretly taped during arguments, and that the defense had played in the courtroom, showing Jason Harper’s abusive nature. Attorney Pfingst said that in these recordings Jason Harper showed his hatred, venom, latent aggression, coiled anger, and that he was intimidating and uncompromising.
In the video recording, an angry Jason Harper is shown gesturing wildly while yelling at Julie about money and a weekend family vacation that he did not want to go on, all the while holding their young son in his arms. The child eventually begins to cry. During the marriage, Jason Harper insisted that Julie contribute $3,000 per month to the household expenses, even when she ceased working, was taking care of the couple’s three small children, and was suffering from extensive medical problems. She paid the money from pre-marriage savings, inheritance money, and gifts received from her family, until she eventually told her husband she was unable to do so. Her lack of financial contribution infuriated him. On the video, Jason Harper says, “Don’t force me into going somewhere until you give me my $3,000.”
In another recording, a tape made on the eve of the couple’s tenth wedding anniversary, Jason Harper is heard repeatedly calling his wife a “f****** b****” as they argue over child care issues and money. He tells her that the money he earns as a teacher is his money, and that it will only be their joint money when she contributes. An emotional Julie is heard saying, “I have an abusive husband who calls me names and won’t let me spend any of our money.” When she asks about going out to celebrate their anniversary, he coldly tells her, “I don’t give a sh** about our tenth anniversary. I’ve already said our marriage sucked a**. I’ve already said I’d want a divorce if it was not for our kids. You think I give a sh** about ten years? God, what world do you f****** live in? I am here only for the kids.”
Julie Harper was afraid of her husband and was scared to tell him that she had filed for divorce continued Pfingst. “His retaliation was not going to be pretty and she was afraid of it, and she took steps to protect herself from it. God bless her for that!” said Pfingst. “She doesn’t have to put up with getting raped again simply because she filed for divorce.”
Attorney Pfingst took the jury to the morning of the shooting, when an argument started over Jason’s computer, but escalated out of control when Julie revealed that she had filed for divorce and he found out his teacher’s union would not pay for his attorney. His trigger was money and he was enraged. He sexually attacked her like he had done in the past. Julie Harper got free and ran to the gun. She told him to stop but he didn’t. The gun went off. Attorney Pfingst stressed that Julie Harper fired only one shot. “If she really wanted to kill him, why not shoot him again or shoot him in the back of the head?” asked Pfingst. The testimony of the children corroborate Julie Harper’s story stated Pfingst. The young son Jake said that his dad “looked like he was going to explode,” the children heard their father yelling at their mother, and when they went upstairs immediately after the shooting, they found their mother in state of undress.
It is not unreasonable to believe that Julie Harper accidentally shot her husband argued Pfingst. He emphasized the testimony of the defense expert, Dr. Ron Martinelli, who discussed Acute Stress Disorder. Dr. Martinelli said that in times of acute fear, even trained police officers and experienced military will have accidental shootings, and that a ten pound trigger pull will not prevent an accidental shooting. An adrenalized person has a physiological response to threats, and Julie Harper was in an adrenalized state when she shot her husband. During the trial, at the prosecution’s request, the jury members individually test fired an unloaded gun similar to the gun that Julie Harper used. Judge Blain Bowman allowed the test so the jury could feel the weight of a ten pound trigger pull. Attorney Pfingst contended that it was an unfair test as the jury was not in an adrenalized state when they dry-fired the gun, and reminded the jury of this fact during his closing.
Attorney Pfingst asked what evidentiary value the gun actually had as “there is no contest to who the shooter was.” He said that Julie Harper made a panicked decision and used bad judgment when she buried the gun. He explained that she thought she would be able to retrieve the gun in a few days, believing she would be in jail for only a short period of time. Instead she ended up being in jail for over one year, and when she went to retrieve the gun, she could not find it.
The defense went on to describe Julie Harper’s actions after the shooting as that of a mother who really loved her children and wanted only to protect them from the traumatic circumstances of their father’s death. Attorney Pfingst said that Jason Harper died within seconds and that Julie Harper could not have saved him by doing CPR. She only covered up her husband so the children would not see his body. Julie Harper was a good mother who was seeking a place of safety for her children before she dealt with the police Pfingst explained. He said that innocent people will often panic after a traumatic event, and that it was not unreasonable for her to think of her children first. He emphasized that she did not flee and that she told the police from the very beginning that she had shot her husband. There was no evidence that she moved her husband’s car or took his keys and wallet.
Attorney Pfingst disputed that there was any “getaway bag,” explaining that the bag was packed way in advance of the shooting and was a bag domestic violence victims are instructed to always keep at hand in the event they need to leave immediately. Julie Harper needed cash to be able to support herself and legal documents for the children to be able to enroll them in a new school. “This bag shows the fear that she was in,” said Pfingst.
Julie Harper does not have to prove that she acted in self-defense or prove that she was raped pronounced Pfingst. “If there is a doubt, she is entitled to it,” said Pfingst. He further explained that under the circumstantial evidence rule, when two or more reasonable interpretations of the evidence exist, one pointing to guilt and the other pointing to innocence, the jury must adopt the one pointing to innocence. He said that the existence of the videotape, the audiotape, the day-timer, the documentation sent to Jerome, and the bedroom door without the hardware are all “extraordinary corroboration for the abuse and rapes.”
“Julie Harper had no motive to kill her husband and the absence of motive is the most important issue in this case,” said Pfingst as he closed his four hour argument. She had filed for divorce and would be receiving support. “Jason Harper believed he had the right to control her, her body, and their money. She had the right to defend herself and justice will be served by finding her not guilty,” concluded Pfingst.
The Jury’s Verdict of Guilty:
After less than twenty-four hours of deliberation, the jury found Julie Harper guilty of second degree murder and the gun use allegations of personal use of a firearm and personal discharge of a firearm. Julie Harper faces forty years to life in prison. Judge Blaine Bowman will formally sentence Julie Harper on November 5, 2015. Julie Harper’s parental rights were terminated after the shooting, and the three children were adopted by Jason Harper’s aged parents.
To See Photos of Julie Harper, Jason Harper, and Media Coverage of the Case, Please Go To The Following Links: