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Twilight Rapist likely will face repeated trials

Sonny Long

By Sonny Long
Oct. 4, 2011 at 5:04 a.m.

Billy Joe Harris, right, confers with defense attorney Alan Cohen during a break in the punishment phase of his recent trial in Edna. Other counties are interested in prosecuting Harris. "I don't know what county will be next," Cohen said.

DeWitt County District Attorney Michael Sheppard plans on putting convicted rapist Billy Joe Harris on trial again.

Harris, dubbed the Twilight Rapist, was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a disabled person and sentenced to life in prison by a Jackson County jury.

He has been linked by DNA and other evidence to several similar crimes in South and Central Texas, including in Yoakum where the first attack is believed to have taken place in January 2009.PLEA?

Sheppard said a plea agreement with Harris is not in the works.

"Since he has claimed insanity in Jackson County, it will be difficult to do a plea bargain unless he admits that he is competent," Sheppard said. "Only competent people can enter a plea bargain."

"I have no interest in doing a plea bargain with him anyway unless it is a plea that ensures that he will be locked up for the balance of his life," said the district attorney.

Alan Cohen, Harris' defense attorney, said Harris' competence to stand trial was not in question in Jackson County. Harris pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the Jackson County case.

The testimony of the defense's expert witness on multiple personality disorder was ordered stricken from the record on a ruling by District Judge Skipper Koetter following prosecution testimony that such a diagnosis was controversial and not generally accepted by the scientific community.OTHER COUNTIES

Harris has also been indicted in Leon County and cases in Caldwell County, Bell County, Falls County and McLennan County have been linked to him.

Cohen is also Harris' attorney in Leon County, where he has been indicted on three charges.

"I don't know what county will be next," Cohen said. "I am continuing with the basic theory and contacting additional doctors to aid in his defense. I am convinced he is crazy."

Any appeal in the Jackson County case will not be handled by Cohen, but by court-appointed Victoria lawyer Keith Weiser, said Jackson County District Clerk Sharon Mathis.

Henry Garza, Bell County district attorney since 2001, said he is working closely with the other counties who have an interest in Harris.

"We have taken the position to wait until the conclusion of the Jackson County case," Garza said. "Jackson County took the lead, and we are working in conjunction with the other counties that are involved to determine the best course to take."SENTENCING STRATEGY

The victims from some of the other cases linked to Harris testified during the sentencing phase of the trial in Jackson County.

Law expert Gerald Treece, vice president and associate dean of the South Texas College of Law in Houston, said Chapter 37.07 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that allows such testimony during sentencing was properly applied.

"Once you are found guilty, the due process clause is relaxed. As protective as we are during the guilt-innocence phase, we loosen up during this stage," said Treece, who was not completely familiar with details of the Harris case, but said the section of the code applies nonetheless.

"Once a person is convicted, the theory is that all the defendant's life experiences are relevant, especially when they indicate a pattern of criminal behavior," Treece said.SENTENCING DETAILS

Harris, 54, will have to serve at least 30 years of his sentence before he is eligible for parole, said Jackson County District Attorney Bobby Bell, who led the prosecution of Harris.

He was also fined $10,000, the maximum allowed by law. The sentence also included restitution.

"If legally permissible, Harris' military retirement and military disability payments could be garnished for restitution payments," Bell said.

A total of $24,000 in restitution is listed in the jury's sentencing recommendation. This restitution includes victims of crimes other than the one in Edna.

One victim in Yoakum had at least $11,000 and possibly as much as $15,000 stolen during her attack, she testified during the trial.

Harris remains in the Jackson County jail. Once he is "paper ready," the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has 45 days to transfer him to state prison, Bell said.



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