VFW-area murder trial begins

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 20, 2003

The murder trial of Ronald Lee Little began Wednesday morning at the Covington County Courthouse in Circuit Court with Judge Ashley McKathan presiding. Little was charged with the murder of A.D. Harris on February 16, 2001, near the VFW Post 3454 between River Falls and US 29 North. When River Falls Police Chief Jeff Holland was called to the scene, he discovered Harris' body with what appeared to be two knife wounds to the neck. Little was charged later that night and released on $1 million bond.

At the time of the murder, Harris was 54 and Little was 62.

The jury was warned by both Chief Assistant District Attorney Greg Gambril and defense attorney Mark Christiansen that some of the evidence would be graphic.

"You're going to see some very gruesome photos," said Christiansen. "I want you to look beyond that."

Little has been charged with murder, which could carry a term of 10 years to life, with a possibility of the minimum being increased to 20 years because of the use of a deadly weapon. Christiansen is claiming both self-defense and

not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect on behalf of his client.

"He was defending himself," said Christansen at the opening of the trial.

Gambril in his turn told the jury that self-defense was not a justifiable claim in this case, since Harris was weaponless and drunk and Little had means to escape.

"You're going to see wounds so severe, they came with force," said Gambril. "They came with the intent to kill."

The first witness called was Harris' first cousin, Duane Harris. The witness stated that his cousin, the victim A.D. Harris, had lived off and on with him, and with his brothers for several months, and that he also often stayed at "the club," referring to the VFW.

He testified that his cousin was an alcoholic, and when Gambril asked when that happened, Harris said, "Right after he came back from Vietnam."

Under Gambril's questioning, Harris said the victim's alcoholism "got worse over the years" and that he suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, back problems and "nerves."

Christiansen asked Harris why his cousin liked to move around.

"He just didn't like to stay put," said Harris.

"Did you have problems with him because of his alcoholism?" asked Christiansen.

"Yes," said Harris. When Christiansen

asked him if the victim became violent, Harris said he "never saw him become violent."

River Falls Police Chief Jeff Holland provided the bulk of the testimony Wednesday, appearing

both before and after the lunch break. He provided a timeline from the point he was called to the VFW to the arrest of Little. He was also asked to verify the evidence and that it had been processed correctly and left untampered with. He was questioned about exactly when he received the call, when he arrived, when the body was discovered and when it was removed from the scene.

Holland told the jury he was met at the VFW by the wife of the defendant. He said she led him up a dirt road to where Harris' car was parked under the power lines. It was still daylight, Holland told the jury.

He said he found the victim lying on the ground with "blood all around him" and that he "could tell his throat had been cut." He checked for a pulse, although, Holland said, "it was pretty obvious he was dead."

Several officers came to the scene to help, said Holland, including Waylon Griggs of the Sheriff's Department and Sonny Bedsole of the ABC Commission.

While Mrs. Little was showing Holland where the body was, the police chief told the jury that the defendant, Little, stayed in the truck.

"We asked him to step out of the truck," said Holland. "He had blood all over his pants."

Holland said

they noticed a folding, pocket-type knife on the truck seat and that it was closed, but he could see "red blood on the back of the blade." He said he read Little his Miranda rights.

"At that, Mr. Little told us he didn't have anything to say," said Holland. Holland then had Little taken to the Covington County Jail by Greg Jackson, who was the acting police chief in Gantt at the time.

When asked if Little seemed to be under the influence of alcohol, Holland said he "had a smell of alcohol about his person," but that "he did not appear that drunk."

Gambril then entered several photos into evidence, showing the crime scene with the body, the suspected murder weapon and other evidence from varying angles.

The photographs depicted Harris found lying on his side, his feet only inches from the rear tire of his vehicle. An area a few feet away appeared "scuffed up," said Holland, who said blood was found around the body, with some found on the driver's side door.

Holland was told to open the evidence bag containing the alleged murder weapon and show it the jury. The blade, more than three inches long, locked into position when opened. Holland was asked to identify aspects of the defendant's appearance that evening. Holland said

there was blood on the knees, some on the thighs and "small spots" on the shirt. The clothing was then entered into evidence.

When asked about injuries to the defendant or other weapons, Holland said there appeared to be no injuries, and no other weapons were found.

Christiansen, on cross-examination, asked Holland if the defendant had been cooperative and Holland said yes. He also asked the police chief about statements Little gave after being Mirandized.

"He voluntarily went to talking to Mr. (Dennis) Meeks and to Jackson," said Holland. "I don't know about 'making statements,' but he was talking, "

Holland said Little never made a statement to him personally and the officers in question did not prompt or question Little.

Officers Griggs, Meeks and Jackson were called to testify next, in that order. Griggs confirmed he had been the one to find the defendant's car at his home and secured it until it could be impounded as evidence. Holland had earlier told the jury spots of blood had been found on the console of Little's car.

Meeks told the jury that Little had given an unsolicited statement while the two men waited at the Andalusia Regional Hospital emergency room for blood to be taken as evidence.

According to Meeks, Little told him he was at the VFW with A.D. Harris, J.W. Petty and James Walker and he drove Petty home at his request be cause Petty had had too much to drink. After taking Petty home, according to Little's statement to Meeks, he returned to the VFW and later that afternoon, he was driving up the dirt road and A.D. Harris flagged him down.

According to Meeks' testimony, Little told him Harris said he needed help with his car, that it wouldn't start. Then, Meeks, who was a Covington County Sheriff's Department investigator at the time, said Little stated that Harris asked him if he had brought anything to drink, and "came at him with arms raised" and Little took out his knife.

"He said he'd only thought he'd scratched Mr. Harris until he saw him on the ground," said Meeks.

Meeks said Little told him that he went home and told his wife, but she didn't believe him until he brought her back to see the body, then he told her to call the police."

"Did he ever tell you the victim had a weapon?" asked Gambril.

"No," said Meeks. "He said 'He came at me with those big burly hands.'"

"Mr. Little never said he intended to kill Mr. Harris, did he?" asked Christiansen.

"No," said Meeks.

When Jackson was called to the stand, he supplied the video and audio tape of the patrol car ride taking Little to the jail, but a music station had been playing during the taping and the conversation was difficult to make out at times. Gambril ran the tape, pausing it several times to ask Jackson to clarify what was being said by both himself and Little.

Jackson's account of the statement Little made to him was much like the one given to

Meeks. At one point, Jackson said Little claimed Harris had "come after him" before. Other statements on the video tape, according to Jackson's testimony, included "I done everything I could to get away from him," "He wasn't worth it, really," "I truly feel sorry for it,"

"Damn, I was scared, he was a whole lot bigger than me," "I told my wife so someone would know where the poor b--- was," and "They're gonna give me life."

Jackson also echoed Holland's statement that while Little appeared to be under the influence, he did not seem incapacitated. Jackson told the jury Little had identified places on the drive in and, clearly audible on the tape, said "It's a nice jail," when the patrol car came to a stop at the Covington County Jail.

After the three officers testified, those who had been at the VFW that day were called, one at a time, to the stand, giving testimony that outlined the events of the day prior to the murder as best as they could remember.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series covering the murder trial of Ronald Lee Little, which began Wednesday, Nov. 19.