Sentenced: Dec. 20,
1996, age 30
Crimes: Burglary, attempted
murder, murder, murder of a fetus
Date of crimes: Aug. 9, 1994
Locations: 1200 block of Marine
Victims: Bernard Canto, Alicia
Status: Briefed on appeal,
Harris killed his fiancée, Allen,
who was 17 weeks pregnant, and shot Canto in a dispute over $1,500 that
Canto owed him.
Allen was found face down on her
bed, her hands bound behind her back with socks and twine. Her cash and
jewelry were gone.
At his trial, Harris denied
killing his girlfriend, and contended that the shooting was the result
of a drug deal gone bad.
He claimed to be a “middle man” on
seven large-scale drug deals with Canto, and sometimes sold fake cocaine
to cheat buyers.
Harris said two men confronted him
at Canto’s home.
Canto at first would not identify
Harris as the man who shot him, but did later when he learned Allen had
not believe Harris’ story.
S.C. Upholds Death
Sentence in Murder of Pregnant Gardena Woman
By Kenneth Ofgang -
August 30, 2005
The California Supreme Court
yesterday affirmed the death sentence imposed for
the 1994 killing of a pregnant Gardena woman, saying the trial judge’s
manner of questioning the defendant during his testimony may have
been improper but was not prejudicial.
In a 5-1 decision, the justices
affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan’s imposition of
the maximum penalty on Maurice Harris for the murder of Alicia Allen and
her fetus. Prosecutors presented evidence that Allen, who was 17 weeks
pregnant at the time of her death, had been wearing earrings, a gold
chain, and four rings shortly before the murder; there was no jewelry on
or near the corpse.
Harris was tied to the murder
through the testimony of Regina Mills, whose residence the defendant was
arrested at, and who testified for the prosecution under a grant of
immunity from prosecution for harboring a fugitive and possession of
stolen property. Mills said Harris told her he had been involved in a
robbery and that he thought he shot a pregnant woman.
Also testifying for the
prosecution was Bernard Canto, Allen’s boyfriend and an acquaintance of
the defendant. Canto claimed that Harris shot him a little over a mile
from the residence he shared with Allen, about an hour before police
responded to the report of Allen’s shooting.
Canto claimed that the defendant,
with whom he had dealings related to a car restoration business, had
called him and said he was going to repay a $1,500 debt to Canto, but
then shot him in front of the defendant’s apartment.
Canto, who was hospitalized for
a month, was murdered in Chicago a little more than a year later, before
Harris’ trial. His preliminary hearing testimony was introduced at the
Harris, in a version of the
events that he admitted he had not told to anyone before the trial,
denied the murder, and claimed to have been innocently caught up in
events involving Canto.
Harris said he and Canto had
sold drugs together, using contacts Harris made as a convicted drug
offender who had been involved in several large-scale cocaine deals
before serving a term in federal prison.
On the day of the shootings,
Harris claimed, Canto contacted him for help in meeting the requests of
two visitors from Chicago who wanted to buy a kilogram of cocaine.
Unable to get the kilo from his
supplier, Harris said he decided to use a kilo of fake cocaine,
believing the buyers were in a hurry and would not test the merchandise
before going home. When he got to the house, however, two men attacked
him and tied him up; he said he loosened his hands and ran out.
He denied giving a contrary
version of events to Mills, who testified that Harris called her from
jail and threatened to kill her because he believed she was the one who
told the police where he was.
After the prosecutor cross-examined
Harris, Horan—a former deputy district attorney—asked the defendant a
number of questions, including the following colloquy:
“Court: When you were in the
house, you say you heard a gun go off? Who did you figure was being
“Defendant: I thought I was
being shot at.
“Court: At some point did it
dawn on you that perhaps somebody else had been shot in the house?
“Court: Never did?
“Court: Did you think that Mr.
Canto might be in there?
“Defendant: Yes, I figured it
was a possibility he was in there.
“Court: You didn’t see him,
“Court: Did you ever call the
house later on to see if anybody got killed?
“Defendant: No, I didn’t.
“Court: Why not?
“Defendant: Just never crossed
“Court: Weren’t you curious?
“Defendant: I was more
“Court: In the next couple of
days did you ever call the house or try to contact Mr. Canto?
“Defendant: Like I said, I
believe it was the next day that I read the newspaper.
“Court: You said two days later.
“Defendant: I believe it was
either that day or the next day.
“Court: It wouldn’t be in the
next morning’s paper since it happened so late.
“Defendant: I couldn’t say for
sure. I couldn’t say what day it was.
“Court: You never called to
find out what happened?
“Court: Never did?
In addition to finding Harris
guilty of first degree murder of Allen and first degree murder of a
fetus, the jury convicted him of the attempted murder of Canto, and
found as special circumstances that Allen was murdered in the course of
a burglary and a robbery, and that the killings of Allen and her fetus
constituted multiple murder.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for
the high court, said that while he could “not endorse all of the trial
court’s questioning...and, indeed, would find some of it inappropriate”
if the defense had objected, there was no prejudice.
“We must assume that jurors
followed their instruction not to ëdisbelieve any witness’ or to decide
the facts based on anything the court said or did, and to disregard any
intimations or suggestions the court may have made regarding the
believability of any witness,” the justice wrote. “Further, the evidence
of guilt was strong and the weaknesses in defendant’s assertions of
innocence would have been apparent to the jury even absent the court’s
Justice Joyce L. Kennard,
writing separately, criticized the judge’s questioning, saying he
“became an advocate for the prosecution, abandoning the neutrality
required of a judge,” but agreed that the questioning was not
prejudicial. She argued, however, that the death sentence should be
reversed because Horan erroneously excluded defense evidence concerning
Canto’s activities that might have resulted in a different verdict in
the penalty phase.
The case is People v. Harris, 05