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Jury sentences convicted rapist to life in prison, assesses $10,000 fine

By Gheni_Platenburg
Sept. 30, 2011 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated Oct. 1, 2011 at 5:01 a.m.

Defendant Billy Joe Harris enters the Jackson County courtroom in handcuffs and leg shackles. The restraints were requested by his attorney, Alan Cohen, seated at left. Harris, who claims to suffer from multiple personality disorder, also wore ear plugs that help him block out unwanted voices in his head, Cohen said. TODD KRAININ/TKRAININ@VICAD.COM

Who's who

PRESIDING JUDGE: District Judge Skipper Koetter

PROSECUTOR: District Attorney Bobby Bell

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Alan Cohen

District Attorney Bobby Bell explained why he was able to use testimony from the victims of the other sexual assaults and attacks Billy Joe Harris is charged with committing:

Under Chapter 37.07 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, anything relevant to sentencing can be used during the punishment portion of a trial, even if it includes information on cases that have not gone to trial.

EDNA - A Jackson County jury took about 10 minutes on Friday to sentence Billy Joe Harris and his alleged other personalities - David the dog and Bobby - to life in prison for sexual assault.

Dubbed the Twilight Rapist, Harris, 54, of Missouri City, was convicted last week by a Jackson County jury for the January sexual assault of a disabled Edna woman.

Authorities say they have linked Harris, who is accused of being a serial rapist, by DNA and other evidence to more than 10 sexual assaults in the Crossroads area and Central Texas since 2009.

The Advocate does not name sexual assault victims or their relatives to protect the victims' identities.

"I'm pleased that our victim and other victims have received some measure of justice and hopefully that will help them go forward," said Jackson County District Attorney Bobby Bell.

In addition to a life sentence, jurors also assessed Harris a $10,000 fine.

Shortly after Harris' attorney, Alan Cohen, began his closing arguments, Harris attempted to stand up and cause a scene.

"Control yourself!" Cohen said to his client as guards restrained Harris.

The agitated defendant was led out of the courtroom. He was only allowed back in the courtroom to be formally sentenced by District Judge Skipper Koetter and to listen to the victim impact statements.

As Cohen continued with his closing statement, he reiterated Harris' alleged multiple personality disorder to jurors, which he brought in expert witnesses to testify about during the guilt-innocence phase of the trial.

Officially called associative disorder syndrome, Harris' condition was brought about by watching and participating in pornography, including taking part in bestiality with a dog, as a teenager, as well as a fear of his older brother, Cohen contended.

"Billy was so traumatized by Tommy (his brother) that he slept, lived and moved into the attic of a farmhouse," Cohen, who described Harris' crimes as violent, sadistic and disgusting, told jurors. "It was a fortress of isolation."

Cohen said two other personalities were identified by the two doctors who examined Harris - David the dog, who committed the crime, and Bobby, the mastermind.

"He was a rabid dog," said Cohen. "If David the dog had got into (one of the defendants) bedroom, he would have torn her to shreds. There's no doubt in my mind."

He dismissed testimony by prosecution witness Dr. Richard Coons that Harris was not mentally ill, but strange.

"A person diagnosed as strange doesn't commit these crimes," said Cohen.

The defense attorney told jurors the keys Harris took from his victims were further proof of his mental illness.

"Those belonged to the dog," said Cohen. "They provided him access back to his prey."

During his closing arguments, Bell shot down Harris' claims of mental illness.

"If you're going to come up with an excuse, you need to come up with a better one than that," said Bell. "Those trophies were in his house so he could become aroused and yes maybe even sexually gratified."

Bell said Harris targeted church-going women, accusing Harris of scouting out his victims on Sundays.

"It's ironic that's where he picked them up, but he was deeply disturbed when (the victims) prayed," he said. "There's not enough years you can give him."

He went on to say, "He has no conscious, which means he has nothing to control these actions. He's never going to stop if he's out."

Bell totaled his crimes to 29, including rapes, attempted rapes and burglaries.

After the sentence was handed down, victims presented their impact statements.

"I was grossly violated in my private space. My home was violated. I was attacked in a way I will never forget," said Carrie West, the pseudonym for the disabled woman who was attacked on Jan. 8 in her apartment. "I don't know if I will ever be able to forgive him, but I have to try for my own soul."

As her brother stood next to her for emotional support, she continued, "Billy Joe Harris, may God have mercy on your soul."

An 81-year-old Yoakum victim, who played the organ every week day morning at her church, said, "I no longer feel safe walking a half block to church. Many times I open my door and get a flashback of a man crouching there."

A Hope of South Texas representative read aloud a victim impact statement from one victim, who could not attend Friday's proceedings, about the financial impact Harris' crime has had on her life, causing her to only travel by a van for senior citizens, which costs $1 round trip.

"It may not sound like a lot, but when you only have $141 in income every month, those dollars add up," said the victim, from whom Harris stole her $15,000 in life savings from her home.

In the letter, the woman detailed her plans to spend the money on tombstone repairs for her relatives and to purchase one for herself.

During the victim impact statements, guards had to once again restrain Harris who attempted to stand up again.

An 83-year-old Centerville woman, who scared Harris away from her home with a gun, used her time on the stand to share an inspiring message with the other victims.

"I regret that many of you have been severely mistreated and severely devastated by this man who has entered into our lives," she said. "For all the victims, I grieve. I cry and I pray that we will all find strength and peace in our minds and hearts."

She also had a message for the next person with the misguided idea of breaking into her house.

"I already have a new 38 River CR caliber with live ammunition, which I plan to use for my protection in the future."

Cohen shared his thoughts on his client's punishment.

"I left it wide open," said Cohen, who did not ask the jury for any specific punishment "As long as the jury understood they had the full range punishment from probation to life. I felt they would make the right decision."

Cohen said Harris has done the basic steps to file an appeal.

Although his Jackson County trial has concluded, Harris could face more trials in other counties for other alleged victims.

"I'm absolutely convinced that Billy is mentally ill regardless of the fact that the jury discounted that," he said. "I'm absolutely adamant David the dog and Bobby were the masterminds of the viscous attacks."

If he continues to represent Harris in future trials, he said he plans to continue to use the psychological defense.

"I hope that any other attorney defending him continues to use that defense."

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