A 25-year-old Manassas man was convicted yesterday of voluntary manslaughter for the second time in the 1995 death of his grandmother. But this time, his no-contest plea took on political overtones as the current and former Loudoun County prosecutors traded barbs over how the case was handled.
As part of the plea agreement, James Louis Harris was given a suspended sentence and released from jail.
Harris was 16 when the body of his grandmother, Edith R. Wanzer, 60, of Sterling, was found in the woods near a local high school, three weeks after her husband reported her missing. Prosecutors said Harris, who lived with the couple, killed her during an argument. He pleaded guilty three days into a 1997 trial.
The conviction, however, was overturned in 2001 after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that both parents must be notified when a juvenile is accused of a crime. Prosecutors have said that Harris's mother was told about the charges against the boy, but that his father, who was in prison, was not informed.
The high court modified its decision later in 2001, allowing Harris to be charged again, but that did not happen until this year, when Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman (R) submitted a murder indictment to the grand jury.
Plowman, who was elected in November on promises that he would be tougher on criminals than his predecessor, took credit this week for resuscitating the matter. "We did what we had to do in order to bring some measure of justice to a case that had previously slipped through the cracks," he said in a statement
In an interview, he said the case "was essentially sitting here collecting dust" until he pursued it. "We did what we felt needed to be done as far as making someone publicly accountable for the death of his grandmother," he said.
Former commonwealth's attorney Robert D. Anderson, defeated by Plowman after two terms, said the idea that the case had been forgotten before his electoral defeat was "just flat-out not accurate."
Anderson's former deputy, Owen Basham, who prosecuted the first case and who is in private practice in Leesburg, said he was evaluating the evidence at the time of the election. "I've tried more murder cases than . . . everybody in that office combined," said Basham, who left the prosecutor's office shortly after Plowman took over. "I have an impeccable record, and I will not have it impugned by a junior-league politician who fell into office solely because of political affiliation."
Anderson, who was elected twice as a Republican, ran for office as an independent last year after political feuding prompted him and Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I-) to leave the party.
Basham said he did not believe the evidence supported the second charge of murder, for a malicious killing. The evidence showed that Harris put a hand on Wanzer's neck during an argument, he said, but the autopsy did not show whether she died of an assault, a heart attack brought on by the incident or some other cause.
Harris was charged with murder in 1995 and tried to plead to second-degree murder -- a malicious though unpremeditated killing -- but neither Circuit Court judge in Loudoun would accept the plea, Basham said. In midtrial, Harris pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter -- a killing in the heat of passion -- and that plea was accepted.
Basham said he was so convinced that the second murder charge was "overzealous prosecution" that he offered to help defend Harris if the State Bar would allow it. He said yesterday's manslaughter plea indicated that his assessment was right.
Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney James P. Fisher called Basham's comments "sour grapes" and "carping by somebody with an ax to grind." He said the plea was the best prosecutors could hope for given an old case in which evidence had deteriorated and witnesses had disappeared.
"It's grossly unfair to the process of justice to let a case sit around for that long with no action," he said. "Justice delayed is justice denied, and [Owen Basham] ought to know that."
Harris appeared yesterday before Loudoun Circuit Court Judge James H. Chamblin, who also presided over his 1997 trial. "I think this is the appropriate resolution of this case, given everything that has gone on in this, in my opinion, very, very unusual case," Hamblin said before accepting the plea.
Harris had been working in a grocery store and saving money to return to school to study art in the years since his first conviction, according to one of his attorneys, Public Defender Lorie E. O'Donnell. If the new indictment "was not politically motivated," she asked, "why was it not manslaughter instead of murder?"
Deputy Public Defender Bonnie Hoffman said she was glad Harris would return home but disappointed that "his life had to be turned upside down again." Hoffman said Plowman never told Harris's family -- which includes Wanzer's mother, children and grandchildren -- before he decided to charge Harris again this year.
"If this was designed to bring some measure of justice, wouldn't you want to call the family and see if this is what they wanted?" she asked.
Plowman said charging Harris was "really not their decision to make. This is about the public interest and public safety."
Chamblin sentenced Harris to seven years in prison, suspending all but the four months Harris had served since his indictment in March.
to manslaughter in 1997 in the slaying
of his grandmother.