Charles V. Harrelson, charged with killing Federal District Judge John H. Wood Jr. in San Antonio on May 29, 1979, testified today that he was in his Dallas apartment the morning of the murder and first heard about the shooting from a television news bulletin.
Harrelson is one of five persons charged in the murder of Judge Wood, known as "Maximum John" for his tough drug sentences, in the only assassination of a federal judge in this century.
In his second day on the witness stand, Harrelson described his movements on the day of the killing and, occasionally palming a deck of cards, told of his life as a drug user and gambler.
Harrelson, now serving a 40-year sentence on drug and gun charges, said that on the morning of the killing, he was awaiting the arrival of a friend who had loaned him a golf club. He had borrowed the putter, Harrelson testified, to determine how much cocaine could be hidden in the shaft of a golf club.
He said the friend, Billy T. Dyer, arrived about 9:15 a.m. and that moments later "a bulletin was flashed on the screen about Judge Wood being killed, or being shot." Wood was killed about 8:30 a.m.
"I told Billy to be damn sure he remembered being there at my apartment," Harrelson said. "I said remember where you are because if they don't catch the fool that did that, they'll bug me about it."
Dyer originally said in an affidavit that he had been at Harrelson's apartment, but in earlier testimony for the prosecution, said he had lied at Harrelson's request.
Harrelson said he was in San Antonio the day before the shooting, but spent the night at his Dallas apartment with his wife Jo Ann.
He said he awoke about 7:30 a.m., showered and got dressed and that the Dinah Shore Show was on television when the bulletin came on.
He said he and Jo Ann left the apartment about 9:30 a.m. They went to a barber shop, where Harrelson said he attempted to collect a gambling debt, and to a bank, where Harrelson bought a $600 cashiers' check and his wife made a deposit. Later he said he drove by himself to a nearby building, where he parked his car with a parking attendant.
Defense witnesses have supported this testimony.
Harrelson said he later visited a friend and met a salesman for a burglary alarm system in his own apartment.
Government lawyers have charged during the trial that Harrelson was paid $250,000 to kill the judge by Jamiel (Jimmy) Chagra. Chagra was facing trial before Wood at the time of the assassination. He was later convicted on drug charges and is now serving 30 years.
The government says the conspiracy included Jo Ann Harrelson, Chagra's wife Elizabeth, and Chagra's brother Joseph. The two women are on trial with Harrelson.
Joe Chagra made a deal with the government under which he is to receive a 10-year sentence in return for his testimony. But he will not be forced to testify against his brother, who will be tried separately later.
In testimony today, Harrelson began to weave a complicated story about his connections with Jimmy Chagra in the spring of 1979.
Harrelson, who said he considered himself "an expert card mechanic," said he and a friend, Peter Kay, were attempting to cheat Chagra, a flamboyant and high-rolling gambler in Las Vegas, out of some of his money.
"Pete said that Jimmy had so much money he didn't count it, he weighed it," Harrelson testified.
Harrelson went to Las Vegas that spring hoping to get a poker game with Chagra, but was "never alone with him" because he couldn't get past Chagra's bodyguard. It was during this period that the government has charged that Jimmy Chagra hired Harrelson to kill Judge Wood.
Harrelson's testimony today included a long description of his prowess as a gambler.
Asked by his attorney, Thomas G. Sharpe, if he considered himself a card cheat, he replied, "I have certain moves in cards that, if there's anyone else in the trade who can do them, I don't know it," he said. "I can put any hand you want in any sequence you want," he said.
Sharpe tried to have Harrelson demonstrate his abilities to the jury. But Judge William S. Sessions Jr. blocked the request after government lawyers said they accepted Harrelson's self-described talents.