Defense attacks ABI#039;s handling of investigation

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 14, 2005

An ABI agent described Janice Ball's demeanor as extremely emotional during an interview following the murders of six of her family members, allegedly by

former boyfriend Westley Devon Harris.

Cpl. Lynn Rhodes Sutton stated that she interviewed Ball in the Lowndes County Jail on Aug. 29, 2002, just days after the murders and where Harris was being held, and at times Ball could barely be understood because of her emotional state.

"She was in shock, crying, upset. We had to pause several times during the interview because she was crying so hard," Rhodes told prosecutor, assistant attorney general William Dill.

Rhodes said she tape-recorded her and Ball's conversation and there are moments when Ball's words are muffled, because of a napkin she held to her mouth, and unrecognizable.

Sutton's testimony came a day after Ball, herself, had taken the witness stand. On Saturday, Ball testified that she either saw or heard Harris shoot all six members of her family, but the defense had argued since the beginning of the trail that Ball was a willing participant in the slaughter. Defense attorney Charlotte Tesmer attacked Ball's credibility during cross-examination, indicating that Ball had a motive to help commit the murders. Ball admitted on Monday she had wanted some of her family members dead for sexually abusing her.

Tesmer also attacked Sutton's handling of the case, alleging that she 'picked and chose' evidence during the early days of the investigation, evidence that would support the ABI's case of Harris being the lone killer. Sutton processed the Pontiac Grand Am, the car used by Harris following the murders, for evidence and Tesmer asked why Sutton chose not to include a number of unfired shotgun shells found in the trunk of the Grand Am as evidence, even though she had collected other shotgun shells found at the crime scene for inclusion.

Sutton replied that the shells in question did not fit the investigation.

Last week, Raymond Smith, a retired agent with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and lead investigator at the time of the murders, was questioned by the defense on his motives for not recording Harris' initial interview with investigators.

Smith said on Friday that much of what Harris said during his first interview with the defendant was not important to the actual investigation.

"So anything else the defendant said during that time is lost?" Asked defense attorney Steve Townes.

Smith replied that it was and was asked by Townes why he had chosen not to tape record his and Harris' conversation, especially considering the magnitude of the case. Smith said it was his choice to write the statement and said he wrote down 'certain things' as Harris said them.

Smith has been a main target of the defense. The defense has accused Smith of omitting evidence that conflicted his theory of Harris being the killer. They also attacked Smith's management of the crime scene, including his crime log that accounts for all persons entering and exiting the crime scene.

Townes asked Smith on Friday if he ever threatened Harris with the death penalty. Smith said he hadn't.

Shannon Fitzgerald, an expert in fingerprint examination, testified that finger and palm prints found on the trunk of a tan Corsica at the Ball family compound and the red Pontiac Grand Am matched those of the defendant. Fitzgerald stated that he actually lifted the prints off the Corsica, as well as a number of different prints from inside the house.

Also last week, the defense and prosecution locked horns over two witnesses for the state, longtime friends of the accused.

Greg Daniels and A.J. Robinson testified that Harris delivered guns to them in the days following the murder of six members of Janice Ball's family, Harris' then-girlfriend.

Daniels testified that Harris gave him three rifles, firearms allegedly stolen by the defendant from the Ball family compound after the murders. He said he later hid the rifles in the woods near his home before turning them over to the agents of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation.

He also stated that Harris told him he had killed the Ball family.

"He said he offed them," Daniels said.

Tesmer questioned the credibility of Daniels as a witness, saying that he had given numerous statements to law enforcement about his relationship with Harris in the days following the murders. She also said Daniels had only come forward once it was brought to light that he could be charged with a felony and questioned the validity of his testimony, which she alluded may have been coerced from him by the ABI under threat of prosecution.

"Mr. Daniels, have you told so many stories that you don't know the truth?" She asked Daniels.

Daniels responded that his testimony on Thursday was the truth.

Robinson, a cousin to the defendant, said Harris drove to his home in Luverne and gave him two handguns, but he was unaware at the time that the Ball family had been murdered. He said Ball and her 1-year-old child was also in the car with Harris. Robinson also stated he couldn't remember any words he and Harris had shared, even when lead prosecutor Don Valeska read aloud a statement given by Robinson to ABI Agent Barry Tucker in which he said Harris had told him, 'this may be the last time you see me.'

Tucker confirmed Robinson's statement during testimony later in the day.

Robinson said three days after receiving the firearms he threw them into the woods by Thomas Ave. in Luverne. When questioned by Tucker and the ABI, Robinson said he alerted them to the location of the two handguns. A search by the ABI, Luverne Police Department, Luverne Fire Department and Crenshaw County Sheriff's Department later recovered the firearms.

Under cross-examination Tesmer asked Robinson if Ball acted any differently when her and Harris stopped by his home that day, noting that Robinson's home was a 'stone's throw' from the Luverne Police Department.

"She acted normal," said Robinson. "She stayed in the car."

"Did she ask for your help?" Asked Tesmer.

"No," said Robinson.

The state also introduced forensic evidence, including DNA samples from the victims and from the defendant.

The prosecution is seeking the death penalty for Harris. He is accused of killing Mila Ruth Ball, 62; her daughter, JoAnn Ball, 35; JoAnn's common-law husband, Willie Hasley, 40, who also went by the name Willie Haslip; and their sons, Jerry Ball, 19, Tony Ball, 17, and John Ball, 14.