A man accused of killing an Alexandria woman wiped the victim's car with a rag and set it afire after saying he was worried the vehicle bore his fingerprints, a witness testified yesterday in Charles County Circuit Court.
Novella Lee Harris, 39, of Washington, said she watched from her bedroom window as Garrison Thomas, 44, poured gasoline into Beverly R. Mitchell's Mitsubishi Eclipse, tossed a match into the car and ran.
Thomas is accused of first-degree murder and other crimes in the death of Mitchell, 26. Her body was found on March 23, 1995, in a vacant lot off Route 225 west of La Plata, in what is now the Locust Grove housing subdivision. A log and a rock used to bludgeon her were found by the body.
Mitchell was last seen alive about 9:30 p.m. the day before as she dropped $10 with her uncle, who lives in Southeast Washington.
About five hours after that, Harris testified, a man she later realized was Thomas came to her door in Southeast Washington, dressed in "high heel shoes, stockings, dress, wig, makeup."
Her mention of the wig is potentially significant because prosecutors hope to link Thomas to a brown wig fiber discovered in the front seat of Mitchell's fire-damaged car.
Harris testified yesterday that she knew the man at her door as "Cookie" or "David," and that he asked where he could find drugs. She said she, the defendant and others spent the hours between 2:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. consuming crack cocaine.
Despite frequent trips to a nearby street for more cocaine, "Cookie" refused to drive the Eclipse, Harris said. She said the man offered several reasons for not wanting to drive, and at one point claimed he had stolen the car. After leaving, then returning, the man set the car afire.
"He said he had to torch the car because of his fingerprints," Harris testified. "His fingerprints were all over the car."
Harris testified that, when shown an array of photographs by detectives, she was able to pick out Thomas as the man she had known as "Cookie."
Public defender Carl W. Buchheister attempted to cast doubt upon the reliability of her identification.
The first time police showed Harris a photo array, she was unable to pick out Thomas as an acquaintance. She succeeded only with a second photo spread months later.
This occurred even though the picture in the first photo spread was larger and brighter than the picture in the second array.
Buchheister led Harris through a series of questions to demonstrate that the pictures depicted the same cheeks, eyebrows, ears, nose, lips and other features.
He then asked the witness her real name, and told the court she had signed a statement to police in 1995 as Novella H. Lee. Harris insisted her name is Novella Lee Harris.