It Takes a Village

A jury gives a mother an earful -- and its sympathy

They start their deliberations on April 24, and the next morning they return, eyes downcast, to say they still can't agree. Tension hangs in the air, hangs like the first jury to try this case, back in February. Now it's looking as if this jury may hang, too.

Over a misdemeanor.

Bridgett Harris, 28, was charged with two counts of third-degree assault after raising welts on the backsides, torsos and arms of her sons, LaCharles Harris, 9, and LaVell Monger, 10, with an orange plastic belt. The boys' father, Charles Harris, no longer lived with them; he happened to come over, found them crying and, in anger, called the police, but he later refused to testify against his estranged wife. "I just thought there was counseling that should have been involved," he says now, admitting he never expected to wind up with his wife on trial and the kids living with him.

Mathew Strauss

"It appears that the state has gotten overly zealous in going after spanking cases," remarks public defender Philip Dennis, just loudly enough for the jurors to hear. Missouri's assault law does make an exception for "discipline," provided the adult believes force is necessary "to promote the welfare" of the child and does not risk extreme pain or emotional distress. But Edmund J. Postawko, head of the St. Louis circuit attorney's family-violence unit, and Philippa E. Barrett, chief misdemeanor officer, both believe Harris hit her sons intending to injure them, not just teach them a lesson. The daisy pattern on the belt actually left an imprint on the boys' skin -- photos had been passed around the jury box -- and Postawko is disturbed by Harris' decision to use an object instead of her hand and use it in places other than "the traditional on-the-butt, which, fortunately, is pretty resilient."

The jurors don't know what to think. Every hour or so, they send out another question: Can they see the belt again? Can they change the prescribed punishment for third-degree assault (up to 100 days' incarceration and up to a $1,000 fine, or both)? Finally, and most urgently, can they talk to the defendant themselves?

Matt Potter, a brand-new assistant circuit attorney who was handed this case as his first trial, muses over the jury's questions, trying to figure out which way they were going. On the other side of the aisle, Harris sits quietly. Everybody on the jury is over 35 -- she'd marked that at the outset -- and she can't read the looks in their eyes. They don't know she'll lose her job as a nurse's aide if she is convicted. They don't know the boys' father. They don't know how much she loves her kids.

Sometime after noon, the jurors file back into the courtroom, several of the women weeping, and pronounce Bridgett Harris not guilty. Now can they please talk to her?

Standing in the hall just outside the courtroom, a dazed Harris answers the jurors' rapid-fire questions -- "Was this the first time? Do you beat your kids?" -- then pours out her side of the story, details of which the jury never heard: How she'd finally gotten an order of protection against Charles Harris and gathered the courage to kick him out in 1999. How their home was condemned last June and she and the boys were homeless for the rest of the summer, staying with a succession of friends and relatives. That's when the boys really started misbehaving, she says; she'd be at work, and they'd be home with people who played with them half the time and then tried to discipline them, and they'd laugh or disappear. "I'd say, 'Did you all do this?' and they'd say, 'LaLa let us,' and I'd say, 'Well, why didn't you stop when she told you to stop?' and they'd say, 'I dunno.' These were boys who used to ask me if it was OK even just to go across the street to the park!"

By August, they were staying in the Peabody projects with Charles Harris' cousins, and Bridgett Harris knew their welcome was tenuous. On Aug. 8, she came from the nursing home where she worked to find the boys squirting water "like they were outside" with the hose from the kitchen sink. "I asked them what they were doing, and they said, 'I dunno,' and walked away like I wasn't their mother. I went outside after them, and they mouthed off, and I said, 'That's it -- get the belt.'" She just "lost it," she admits to the jury, adding that some of the blows landed wild because the boys were trying to get away from her.

"After I sent them upstairs, Charles pulled up to pick up his cousin, and she went outside and told him he needed to talk to his sons, 'cause they just got a whuppin' and they never did what they were told. He was mad, because his own relatives had been calling him telling him to do more with his kids. He came in and went upstairs, and then he came down and said, 'I'm calling the police.'"

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