Little convicted of murder

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 28, 2003

Ronald Lee Little was convicted of murder Friday afternoon, after the jury deliberated for three hours. Little, in his late 60s and suffering several physical ailments, stood up for the verdict, then sat down soon after it was delivered, one hand over his face.

The family of the murder victim, A.D. Harris, displayed little emotion as the jury emerged, but there were soft gasps and murmurs as it was read.

“I’m relieved,” said Michelle Harris, who is married to the victim’s cousin, Dewayne. She and Dewayne had let Harris live with them for some time. She said she had not been worried during the three hours the jury was out. "Not about finding him guilty - because he was guilty."

The murder took place Feb. 16, 2001 near the River Falls VFW Post 3454. Red Level Police Chief Jeff Holland was called to the scene late that afternoon and was led to the body of Harris, a Vietnam veteran who had been living out of his car close to the club. Harris had been cut twice on the throat, according to the testimony given in the three-day trial, with one cut more than four inches long nicking his windpipe, and the other one severing the carotid artery. Little, who claimed self defense and not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, was arrested that night.

The testimony of called witnesses ended Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m., and the trial resumed Friday morning for closing arguments. Chief Assistant District Attorney Greg Gambril began.

"When the defendant left the VFW club telling Ann Newton that he was going to go 'clean up the trash around the club,' he was telling us, this Maroon Beret, he was telling us he was about to 'search and destroy,'" said Gambril, referring to Little's Special Forces training.

Little's military career and his training in hand-to-hand combat were key issues addressed in Gambril's initial address to the jury."That club was his military unit," said Gambril. "He is proud of his club, and when A.D. Harris began staying at the club, it ticked him off. He was very outspoken about it."

Gambril said Little felt as though the situation had been "thrown in his face" one more time" on Feb. 16, when he was forced to take A.D. along in Petty's truck and drop him off at his car.

Gambril said that when Little's wife refused to come pick him up at the club, things got worse.

"We know that during the course of the day, his mood changed. You heard his wife's retort to him," said Gambril. "This is how this Maroon Beret was talked to in his post."

Gambril said the defendant knew how drunk Harris was, that he was alone and unprotected.

"He knew it was time to strike, Mr. Covert Operations," said Gambril, who then displayed the photograph of Harris' body with the knife wounds. "This wound was made by somebody who knew where to stab, by somebody who knew how to stab."

Gambril told the jury that "this was no accident," and "the defendant knew how to do it, the defendant had the opportunity to do it - and he did it."

Mark Christensen, the attorney for the defense, took his turn with a closing argument that anticipated many of the points the lawyer said he believed Gambril would bring us in his final remarks. He told the jury to listen carefully to the judge, and the judge's distinctions between murder and manslaughter, as well as other aspects, including provocation, mental defect,

and intoxication.

"There's one more option, and that's what I want to talk to you about," said Christensen. "And that's plain old 'not guilty.'"

Christensen stated that Gambril was "Monday morning quarterbacking" and reminded the jury that "This is a man in office."

Christensen then proceeded to point out different details of the testimony, such as the wound at the base of Harris' finger which the pathologist said may have been a defensive wound. Christensen stated that in part of the pathologist's report, it said the wound was in the healing stage already at the time of Harris's death.

Anticipating Gambril's argument, Christensen said he believed the ADA would "hammer in" the option that Little had of retreating from Harris, and the duty a person has to retreat from danger.

"This is almost correct," said Christensen. The key phrase was, he added, "in complete safety."

"Consider the circumstances. What if you have a broken leg? You can't run," said Christensen. He detailed Little's physical problems, then referred to a diagram of the layout of the murder scene and the positions of the cars.

"He's got him boxed in back here," said Christensen. "He can't get to his car. Mr. Harris had him cut off."

In Little's testimony Thursday, he told the jury that Harris had approached him, demanded money, transportation, and threatened him. Little said Harris had backed him into his car.

Christensen addressed the issue of why Little didn't report the incident immediately, saying Little was "badly shaken," and referred to Gambril's theory about Little's protectiveness of the VFW as "an incredibly weak motive."

The defense attorney reminded the jury of Little's belief that he and the victim had been friends, and admitted that Harris's blood alcohol level of .31 was very high, but recalled one of the specialists testimony of the day before that alcoholics could have

higher tolerance for alcohol, and that the blood alcohol level did not necessarily mean Harris was incapacitated.

Christensen, who began his closing argument with asking the jury to remember "intent," called upon them to remember the defendant's own testimony on the previous day of the trial.

"You heard how upset he was that it happened," said Christensen. "It was the only thing he could do."

Christensen closed with a Biblical reference from the Book of Numbers, in which refuge cities are created for those who kill anybody without intent.

"'The congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the avenger,'" quoted Christensen, then he asked the jury to "rescue the manslayer."

The prosecution had the final word as Gambril addressed some of Christensen's arguments, and brought up other points from the trial.

"Mr. Christensen is obviously relying primarily on self defense," said Gambril. "But he also pointed out thing I would like to call 'stealth defenses.' Behind Door number 1, we've got the insanity plea…"

Gambril listed four such "doors" in all, insanity, self defense, manslaughter in the heat of passion, and manslaughter with intoxication.

"He points these out because he wants you looking off in different directions," said Gambril. "How many versions of the truth are out there? One version. He wants you looking

in different directions so you don't see the one true verdict - murder."

Gambril said to give any of the theories credence, the jury would "have to believe the testimony of the defendant - the one man who has the most at stake."

Gambril took the options one at a time, saying the insanity plea was not acceptable, that there had been only one mention of it.

"We got one thing - one thing - 'I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I have bad dreams.' Bad dreams," said Gambril.

Gambril also addressed the changes between Little's testimony Thursday and the statements he gave at the time of the murder.

"Almost three years have passed," said Gambril. "He's had time to think."

Gambril said Little has had time to research and discover that killing an unarmed person in self defense is only acceptable under certain conditions, including robbery, kidnapping and assault II or III.

"All these things suddenly materialize," Gambril said, referring the Little's claims that Harris had asked for money, demanded transportation and made threats of bodily harm - none of which appeared in his previous statements to law enforcement.

Gambril also told the jury that Little could have retreated if Harris had been threatening him, that his use of the walking cane did not seem to be consistent.

"Self defense just isn't there," said Gambril.

As he concluded, he told the jury that Harris was indeed an alcoholic. He gestured at the victim's friends and family sitting in the courtroom.

"That doesn't lessen his value as a human being," Gambril said. "He was not 'trash.' No human being deserves to die the way A.D. Harris died."

Then Gambril offered another option to the jury that he called "Door Number Five - the jury room door,

"Behind that door," he said, "you are going back there and your going to find the truth. The truth is something the defendant knows already - that he murdered A.D. Harris."

The jurors began deliberations at 1:20 p.m. Friday, and by 4:15, they were finished. After the verdict was read, that Ronald Lee Little was found guilty of murder, they were polled by Judge Ashley McKathan to insure that each juror agreed with the verdict, and all did.

Christensen requested that Little be allowed to remain out of jail on his bond, and

Gambril told McKathan the state would object. McKathan remanded Little to custody and he was taken to the Covington County jail. His sentencing date is Dec. 15, 2003.

"I feel justice was served," said David Worek, a friend of the victim's. He and Harris' family are attempting to acquire a veteran's footstone for his grave and have met some difficulty since Harris's paperwork was lost in a house fire shortly before his death. "A.D. was a good man. He definitely didn't deserve this."

"It was an all around unfortunate situation,' said Gambril. "We're glad that justice was served."

Gambril said he expected McKathan to give out full punishment when Little returns to court for sentencing. According to Gambril, murder is a Class A felony and punishable with 10 years to life, but the use of a deadly weapon will make the minimum 20 years.

Gambril said that no one witness's testimony contributed to the conviction.

"With most cases, it's the full picture that matters," he said.

He did add that the evidence supplied by Ann Newton had "a powerful weight" in that it "supplied the motive to some extent."

Gambril said that one surprise during the trial was Little's own testimony,

"I was shocked at the way Mr. Little testified about that," he said, referring to Little's account of his combat training. At one point in the testimony, Little demonstrated how in Special Forces he had been trained to kill with a knife wound in the back, cutting up until the lungs were reached.

"He was so brazen and I think a little arrogant," said Gambril. "Almost proud of it."