Two women vying for part of $10.5 million in claims contended in federal court this week that each is the lawful widow of a man shot and killed by Prince George's County police during a series of robberies allegedly set up by a so-called police "death squad" in 1967.
The issue of the rightful widow -- which must be determined first by a six-member civil jury here before it considers the larger "death squad" allegations -- pits one woman wedded to the slain man in common-law marriage against a second wedded to him in civil and religious ceremonies.
The common-law wife, Jacqueline E. Jones of Silver Spring, contends her marriage to William Clyde Harris in 1963 preceded the other marriage by two years and meets the legal definition of common-law marriage in Ohio where they first lived together. Harris' subsequent marriage, in April 1965, thus was "void as bigamous," argued Jones' attorney Barnet Skolnik this week.
Attorneys arguing for the second woman, Betty Ann Harris of Sharon, Pa., countered that the common-law marriage was bogus and that William Harris lived as a bachelor, moving "from place to place. . .and from woman to woman," as attorney James P. Salmon put it.
Witnesses, including Jacqueline Jones' mother, brother and a former landlady in Youngstown, Ohio, testified they believed Jones and Harris lived together as man and wife and were known in the community as a married couple -- all legal requirements of common-law marriage in Ohio.
Betty Ann Harris' attorney, Thomas Fancher, argued, however, that the couple simply "gave the appearance" of being married so that, for example, they could get an apartment in the mid-1960s, a morally more rigid period than today. It was a "relationship of convenience," said attorney Salmon.
According to testimony, William Harris lived with Jacqueline Jones in Youngstown and later in Silver Spring from November 1963 to February 1965. In February 1965, he returned to Youngstown ostensibly to attend his father's funeral but in fact failed to come back to Silver Spring until January 1967, almost two years later, according to Gertrude Kirkland, mother of Jacqueline Jones. He did not contact Jacqueline during this time, although she gave birth to their daughter, Kim, about two months after he had left, Kirkland said.
It was during his two-year absence that he married Betty Ann Harris, a woman with whom he had had an on-again, off-again relationship in previous years, according to Fancher. The marriage to Betty Ann in 1965 was formalized, Fancher said, by blood tests, a license and both civil and religious ceremonies.
Testimony on which woman is the lawful widow--and thus eligible to assert a claim against the police for William Harris' death -- will resume Monday.
Harris was one of two men shot and killed by Prince George's County police during a series of convenience store holdups in 1967 that survivors of the two men claim were set up by "death squad" officers, as they were called in police circles. Another man was shot and wounded, and several were arrested in the incidents, according to plaintiffs in the $10.5 million lawsuit.
The plaintiffs contend the officers, with authorization from Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr., directed police informants to generate robberies by recruiting participants for holdups at stores staked out by police officers. Police records were then falsified to cover up these actions, according to the plaintiffs.
The actions, say the plaintiffs, violated due-process rights of the slain and arrested persons under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The defendants -- Marshall, former assistant State's Attorney Benjamin R. Wolman, county police officials Joseph D. Vasco and James Fitzpatrick and former police officer Blair Montgomery -- deny the accusations. They claim just the opposite: that informants came to them with information about planned robberies and that police subsequently staked out the targeted stores as a routine procedure. They also deny falsifying police records.
The allegations of the incidents 15 years ago first surfaced in 1979 in a series of articles in The Washington Post.