Julie Harper may claim self-defense

Jury selection for Carlsbad murder trial set for next week

Julie Harper has a word with her defense attorney, Paul Pfingst, September 3, 2014
  • Julie Harper has a word with her defense attorney, Paul Pfingst, September 3, 2014

In court on September 3, there were many hints that a Carlsbad housewife accused of murder would take the witness box in her own defense during her upcoming trial.

Julie Elizabeth Harper, now 41, is accused of killing her husband Jason, 39, in their bedroom while the children played downstairs. He died from a single gunshot through his ribcage in August of 2012.

The Harpers lived in a two-story tract home on Badger Lane in Carlsbad. At the time of their father’s death, the couple's three children were aged 8, 6, years, and 18 months.

In hearings over the past two years, defense attorney Paul Pfingst has made statements suggesting a battered-woman defense or that the shooting was not intentional; in court on September 3, his position seemed to be that Julie Harper fired the gun in self-defense.

The prosecutor continued to complain that he has not received the murder weapon yet, which he suggested is under the control of Pfingst. Watanabe asked the judge to order him to produce the weapon and judge Blaine Bowman denied that request.

John Cihak, who is the father of the defendant, was in the courtroom briefly with his attorney, attempting to refuse to testify for the prosecution. Judge Bowman informed Cihak that he was compelled to testify.

The prosecutor has suggested that a “getaway-bag” prepared by Julie Harper, stuffed with cash and passports and possibly the murder weapon, was hidden at her father’s home and then moved around by someone after she was arrested. Police searched Cihak's home on two occasions.

The defense attorney has asserted that the packed bag proves the defendant was afraid of her husband and was prepared to flee.

Julie Harper surrendered to authorities the day after her husband was found dead. She was taken into custody on August 8, 2012. The defendant posted bond and has been at liberty since September of 2013.

Defense is trying to suppress some evidence regarding the medications used by the defendant. Prosecutor Watanabe alleges that 52 prescription bottles were located in the same room where Jason Harper was found. Those medications are said to include oxycontin, hydrocodone, valium, and morphine.

Yesterday was the last hearing before jury selection is set to begin next Wednesday, September 10, in San Diego’s North County Superior Courthouse. Prosecutor Keith Watanabe said his presentation of evidence will take one week, and the judge said he expects the entire trial will last three weeks.

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In prior hearings this year, defendant has appeared in a glamorous, long blonde wig. But this week she made a more subdued appearance, and wore fashionable eyeglasses.

Looks like she has also dropped about 50 pounds since her last court appearance. Whether she testifies or not, it looks like her case is going to lean heavily on playing for sympathy from the jury and on demonizing the victim.

Prosecutor Keith Watanabe said that Jason Harper was killed by this one .38 caliber slug, which passed through his heart and other organs.

She was taken into custody in Aug. 2012 and bailed out in Sept. 2013? 13 months in custody? Also, I don't get how the defense can hold onto the weapon. Isn't that evidence, and shouldn't the police have confiscated it immediately?

This is going to be a tough job for Pfingsto. There's no doubt as to who pulled the trigger. I'd guess that if he's going to put her on the stand, that's desperation showing. But once on the stand, she has to answer questions from the prosecution, and will have to "explain away", i.e. make look reasonable, some very strange things, more than one of which can be seen as premeditation. Harder yet will be for her to explain her conduct immediately after shooting him. It came across as utterly calloused and also incriminating.

So far in the pretrial portion of the case the judge has ruled against the prosecution in most of its key motions. This issue of the handgun used to shoot the victim is most curious. Just who has it? If she's going to go for self-defense, the best way to establish credibility is to come clean, and cooperate with police and even the DA. That has not happened at all. The rulings suggest the judge is attempting to tilt the case to the defense.

Also relevant is the conduct of Pfingsto himself in the hours after the shooting. His actions come across as highly questionable for an attorney, and he strayed perilously close to the line of becoming an accessory (unless he did fully cross the line.) At one point Watanabe was planning to call his as a witness in regard to that "getaway bag." Paul hasn't been doing so well lately in his defenses, and this one might be his undoing.

Final comment: Yes, she has made her appearance far more appealing than it has been at any time since her arrest. We will soon see if it was all for naught.

Visduh, I have not looked again at the comments since I posted my first one, and I am not a member of the family. A friend called my attention to the case and the upcoming trial. It struck me that there's an excess of animus toward a woman who might turn out to be convincing in court that she suffered at the hands of an abusive husband. The description of him by his colleagues at work is no guarantee of saintly behavior in the marriage home. Also, I agree with an earlier commentator that Pfingst is a competent and honorable attorney. He has said that the state allows whatever it is he may have done with evidence and I'm sure he knows the law on that. Why would he risk possible sanctions by the attorney general or the bar association by doing something stupid?

Several points are troubling in the Julie Harper case. The writer earlier reported that the judge said Harper's husband Jason was shot in the back. Meanwhile a coroner has given testimony and the reporter now says only that the deadly bullet entered his body though the ribcage. What more is the reporter not telling us? The ribcage is a big surface that could be shot through from a number of different angles. Being shot in the back, however, is the most pejorative description that could be given. At trial, will that hold up? Even if not, "being shot in the back" may linger in jurors minds, despite swearing they knew nothing of the case ahead of time. Also, the commenters are assuming that Pfingst has the weapon used in the shooting and that a bag containing money and a passport was a "get-away bag" Julie Harper planned to use after premeditating a crime. The reporter only says that the prosecutor "suggested" these stories. I find it telling that the prosecutor has finally decided not to call Pfingst to the stand to answer to the "suggestions." Julie Harper has already spent more than a year in jail, presumably on the assumption that she is guilty of murder. Maybe it's time people wait until she gets her day in court, and I don't mean the Reader court of public opinion.

Yes, this is a troubling case, but not for the reasons you outline. You're apparently concerned that the jury pool is already tainted by news reports. As to whether he was shot in the back, side, or front, the autopsy report will reveal the entry point and the angle from which the shot came. Of all the evidence presented, that will be unambiguous.

She spent that year in jail because the judge set the bail high, as is done in all such murder cases. That was not done on "the assumption that she is guilty of murder" at all. It was set high because she appeared to be a flight risk, and that she be around for the trial. The long delay in the trial has been due to foot-dragging by Pfingsto. This trial could have been over and done with at least a year ago. Sounds to me as if she and her attorney were holding off her "day in court" as long as they could, for some set of reasons.

I note that you just joined the Reader comment section today. Are you maybe a member of her family?

Hmmm, now that she has taken the stand in her defense and several recordings were played of her deceased husband insulting and ranting expletives at her ( in one instance for not paying "her share" of the $3000 a month she "owed" him--regardless of the fact that she wasn't working outside the home), it sure looks like this creep wasn't the greatest guy after all and just may have been the abusive jerk she said he was.

Julie Harper looked prim this morning, with her own hair pulled back in a pearl barrette, and she wore a modest sweater and dark slacks and flat-soled shoes. She watched the first batch of potential jurors called into court today, Wednesday, September 10, 2014 One of the fourteen questions on the jurors’ questionnaire asks, “Do you own any firearms?” A potential juror who said she worked at the same school district as the deceased, Jason Harper, was particularly questioned by the judge. This woman said she knows many persons whose children were familiar with Jason Harper and that “he was very loved and respected.” This potential juror feared that she would be too emotional to hear the trial, and she was resistant to looking at autopsy photos. She was excused. Opening statements by attorneys are expected Monday morning, September 15, before the Honorable Judge Blaine Bowman.

The trial is coming off just about the way one might expect. They're going to try to portray her as the victim, and her appearance and demeanor have to be consistent with the imagery. (I couldn't imagine her at the trial with that cheap glam wig!) It will take a while to assemble a jury. But when/if she ends up on the stand, she will have some heavy-duty 'splainin' to do, not limited to her small arsenal of guns.

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