The guilty verdict against a woman convicted of beating her 14-month-old goddaughter to death has been tossed out by a district judge who ruled prosecutors committed misconduct during the trial.
The rare decision by a judge to overturn a jury, which is being appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, means Mariann Harris could get a new trial despite being convicted on Oct. 2 for the murder of Dyon Johnson in August 2011.
District Judge Abbi Silver said that during the trial Clark County prosecutors insinuated to jurors that Harris was conscious of her guilt because she failed to show up for interviews with Las Vegas police and Child Protective Services workers and then fled to California.
Harris’ lawyers argued she skipped the interviews on the advice of a defense attorney, which shouldn’t be used against her. And Harris didn’t flee Las Vegas, but moved in with her family in Victorville, Calif., after being locked out of her home by police, they said.
“This is a case that screams reasonable doubt and if not for the prosecutorial misconduct we believe she wouldn’t have been convicted,”said Harris’ lawyer, deputy public defender Scott Coffee.
Prosecutors, who declined to comment for this story, maintained in court papers there was no misconduct. They argue that they were legally allowed to talk about the interviews because Harris at that time had not yet been arrested. They also argued Harris appeared to show guilt when she turned off her cellphone and hid in a Starbucks as police were on their way to arrest her in California.
Harris was convicted of murder and other charges following a week-long trial. She had been left in charge of her goddaughter for several days. When paramedics arrived at Harris’ downtown apartment they found Dyon cold and glassy-eyed.
Prosecutors believed a metal pipe found in Harris’ kitchen was likely used by Harris to inflict on the child more than 30 times, including a fatal skull fracture.
Coffee argued at trial that Harris’ boyfriend, Armani Foster, could have killed the toddler. Foster was in Harris’ home for about an hour when a medical examiner said Dyon likely suffered her fatal wounds, Coffee said. Foster, a gang member with a history of domestic violence against Harris, was never charged. The couple had three children together and Harris was pregnant with their fourth at the time of Dyon’s death.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dena Rinetti argued at the trial that Dyon’s wounds could have happened at any point over a 12-hour period. That Foster was at the home for about an hour during that period of time did not create reasonable doubt, the prosecutor said.
The jury agreed with prosecutors and convicted Harris.
During the trial several witnesses alluded to Harris’s failure to show up for scheduled interviews with homicide detectives and Child Protective Services, who had custody of her kids.
In his motion for a new trial, Coffee wrote that Harris had contacted defense lawyer Craig Mueller when she didn’t show up to the interviews, and had left a forwarding address and phone numbers with Child Protective Services when she went to California.
Coffee later challenged Harris’ conviction, arguing jurors were prejudiced by prosecutors who “forced into issue Harris’ invocation of her constitutionally secured right to remain silent and right to counsel in violation,” of the fifth and sixth amendments.
Prosecutors noted that Mueller never appeared on Harris’ behalf in any court proceedings, and argued that a right to counsel only exists when court proceedings have begun.
“Since no formal charges had been filed and (Harris) was not in custody at the time detectives were trying to meet with her, (Harris) did not have a right to counsel,” Rinetti said.
The prosecutor said that when an FBI-led task force went to arrest Harris in California, she walked to a Starbucks. Her cellphone powered on about two hours after authorities arrived, allowing her to be tracked to the coffee shop. When the agents entered the shop Harris raised a newspaper over her face, Rinetti said.
In ordering a new trial, Silver said “the prosecution repeatedly violated this Court’s orders by continuing to present to the jury insinuations of flight long after they were ordered to stop.”
The prosecution’s conduct was “disingenuous” and prejudiced the jury against Harris, Silver said in a Jan. 31 court filing.
The district attorney’s appeal remains in its early stages, though it may hit a snag. The high court is trying to determine if they have jurisdiction to hear the appeal, meaning that Harris may have a new trial before they rule.
Coffee explained that because the judgment of conviction was never officially signed, Silver’s order granting a new trial cannot be appealed.
Prosecutors have yet to respond to the Supreme Court’s query into its jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, following Silver’s ruling to grant Harris a new trial, she set the defendant’s bail at $23,000, records show. After spending a couple of weeks in jail, Harris bailed out of the Clark County Detention Center on Monday, records show.
Dyon’s mother, Jannett Simms, could not be reached for comment.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@review journal.com or 702-380-1039.