State vs Ambrose A. Harris (a-43-98)

Source: Rutgers Law Library
Date: March 14, 2000

LaVECCHIA, J., writing for a majority of the Court.
    The Supreme Court affirmed Harris' murder conviction and death sentence in 1998. This appeal addresses Harris' request for proportionality review of his death sentence.
    On the morning of December 17, 1992, twenty-two year old Kristin Huggins drove her red Toyota MR2 from her parents' home in Pennsylvania to the Trenton Club in downtown Trenton to paint a mural. When she did not return home on the 17th, her parents reported her missing.
    Huggins' car was found by authorities the next day. Her body was eventually recovered in February 1993, two months after she disappeared. Gloria Dunn led police to the location of Huggins' body, claiming to have seen it in a psychic vision. She also made inquiries regarding the reward money that was being offered. Eventually, however, police learned that Dunn was present when Huggins was murdered. Dunn identified Harris as the murderer and provided numerous statements concerning the circumstances surrounding the murder. Some of those statements were inconsistent. At trial, Dunn was the State's chief witness, providing the only direct evidence linking Harris to the crime.
    Dunn testified that she and Harris met on the morning of December 17, 1992, to carry out their plan of robbing a luncheonette. Harris was on a bicycle, and armed with a .22 caliber revolver. It was raining, and Harris said he would carjack someone to avoid walking in the rain. As they approached the Trenton Club, Huggins drove her red MR2 into the parking lot. Harris said to Dunn, I'm going to get that bitch, and followed Huggins' car to the rear driveway of the Club. Dunn stayed in the front area of the premises. Harris returned, driving the car with Huggins sitting in the front seat. Dunn testified that Harris ordered her into the front seat to sit with Huggins on her lap.
    Harris drove to a deserted area under the Southard Street Bridge in Trenton. Dunn testified that Harris was concerned about the appearance of two African-Americans driving in a two-passenger sport vehicle with a white female passenger. Harris forced Huggins into the front-trunk of the car, where she was required to lie in a fetal position. He then drove back to the Trenton Club to retrieve his bicycle. Throughout her confinement in the trunk, Huggins pleaded for help. This infuriated Harris, who commented to Dunn that he should have killed Huggins earlier.
    Harris returned to the area under the Southard Street Bridge. He ordered Huggins out of the trunk and ordered her to take off her clothes. According to Dunn, Huggins was crying and shaking badly. Harris anally raped Huggins, despite her pleas for help. Harris then ordered Huggins back into the trunk and contemplated his next move, eventually deciding to kill Huggins. Harris again ordered Huggins out of the trunk. As Huggins tried to get out, Harris shot her in the back of her head. Harris dragged the body a short distance and hid it under a discarded mattress. He drove to his mother's house to retrieve two shovels. Harris returned to the crime scene, removed the mattress lying on top of Huggins, and shot her point-blank in the face to ensure she was dead.
    Harris and Dunn then dug a shallow grave and placed Huggins' body in it face down. They covered the body with dirt and threw some additional debris on top. Harris went through Huggins' belongings, taking $30 in cash and her ATM card. Testimony at trial revealed that Harris drove around in Huggins' car the remainder of the day before abandoning it. In addition, a bank ATM security video showed that Harris attempted to withdraw $400 from Huggins' account on December 17th.
    Dunn testified that she did not immediately notify police about what she knew because Harris repeatedly threatened her that if she told anyone, he would come looking for her and harm people that were close to her. The defense sought to attack Dunn's credibility based on inconsistencies between her testimony and her earlier statements. The defense also noted Dunn's professed involvement in the crime, and reminded the jury that she received a reduction in charges in exchange for her testimony. Harris never testified.
    Experts testified that Huggins died as a result of two gunshot wounds to the head. Prosecution experts opined that Huggins may have lived as long as one hour after the first shot and ten to thirty minutes after the second, noting that an autopsy found dirt in her lungs. A defense expert rebutted that, testifying that Huggins died immediately following the second shot.
    Harris was arrested ten days after the murder on an unrelated matter. At the time of Harris' arrest, the .22 caliber pistol used during the murder of Huggins was found on Harris.
    A Mercer County Grand Jury indicted Harris on June 8, 1994, on charges that included murder, felony murder, kidnaping, robbery, and aggravated sexual assault. The Prosecutor served notice of the following aggravating factors in support of a death penalty prosecution against Harris: (1) the murder was committed for the purpose of escaping detection; and (2) the murder was committed while Harris was engaged in the commission of robbery, kidnaping, and/or aggravated sexual assault.
    Because of the extensive publicity, Harris requested a change in venue from Mercer County. Ultimately, he was tried before a jury selected from Burlington County. On February 20, 1996, the jury found Harris guilty on all counts.
    In the penalty phase, the State relied on the evidence submitted during the guilt phase. Harris' defense attorneys submitted 180 mitigating factors concerning Harris' early childhood and the abuse he endured during his childhood. The trial court consolidated all of those factors into one omnibus, catch-all mitigating factor. Three defense experts were offered during the penalty phase, all concluding that Harris was raised in an extremely dysfunctional family environment. Harris' father abused his mother, later abandoning the family. Harris' mother neglected him, and she and her boyfriend physically abused him. At a young age, Harris became involved in violent conduct and sexual activity, and also experimented with drugs. School officials could not control his antisocial behavior. At one point, Harris was diagnosed as mentally retarded and institutionalized in a State mental hospital. Harris accumulated twelve convictions as an adult, spending less than one year out of prison during the period from 1974 to 1992.
    Harris has not shown any remorse for his actions. Throughout the trial, he acted with contempt toward all involved in the case, including his own attorney. During sentencing on the non-capital offenses, Harris addressed Mr. and Mrs. Huggins and told them they owed him an apology because of the conviction.
    The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating factors outweighed the omnibus mitigating factor and sentenced Harris to death. On the non-capital charges, Harris was sentenced to a total of two life terms plus sixty-five years, with an eighty-two-and-one-half year parole disqualifier.
    The death sentence imposed on Harris is AFFIRMED.



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