IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A key witness has come forward with new sworn testimony that suggests the wrong man may have been in prison for 31 years in the brutal slaying of a western Iowa girl.
The testimony comes in the case of Daniel Harris, who maintains his innocence in the 1986 stabbing and beating death of 16-year-old Kristina Nelson in Council Bluffs. Harris’ lawyers say they are convinced Harris is the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and are seeking new proceedings and forensic testing that they believe will prove he was framed.
Harris, a neighbor and friend of Nelson, was convicted in 1987 based partially on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who has long since recanted. At trial, Harris produced evidence showing that he worked his shift at Burger King on the night Nelson was stabbed repeatedly, had her skull fractured and was left on a Missouri River bank. Jurors convicted him after prosecutors asserted he could have committed the crime before clocking in.
The new testimony comes from Ricky Lee Smith, who was 16 and at a drinking party with Nelson’s boyfriend on Dec. 30, 1986, the evening the homicide occurred. In an affidavit signed in February, Smith says Nelson’s boyfriend and his friend left the party to pick Nelson up and returned “covered in blood” hours later. Smith says the two “looked like they had rolled around in blood,” said they might have killed someone and talked about ways to dispose of a body. He says they washed their hands with a solvent and he helped them burn their overalls in a barrel behind the home.
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The boyfriend, who had relatives working in the Council Bluffs Police Department, was the initial suspect in Nelson’s death but was cleared after denying involvement. Smith said he didn’t tell police what he saw at the time because he was scared, and he was not called to testify at Harris’ trial. After Harris was found guilty, Smith told the media that the wrong man was convicted but claims he soon started facing harassment that caused him to move to Florida.
A prosecutor dismissed Smith’s affidavit as “irrelevant” because it contradicts what he told police in a 1986 interview and in a 1987 pre-trial deposition.
“Smith’s affidavit provides no exculpatory information concerning Harris. The affidavit is irrelevant, unreliable, immaterial and would not have changed the result of Harris’ trial,” assistant Pottawattamie County attorney Margaret Reyes wrote in a filing opposing any further proceedings.
Attorneys for Harris, who was 21 and had an infant son when he was sentenced to life in prison, argue that Smith’s affidavit and other concerns should be enough to allow for new discovery and forensic testing. They say the verdict would have been different if jurors heard Smith’s testimony about two other suspects leaving a party to pick Nelson up and returning without her covered in blood.
“The State would rather keep an innocent man in jail on the basis that a terrified teenager failed to disclose all of what he knew on the night that Nelson was murdered, than seek out true justice,” they wrote.
The DNA testing they are seeking involves hairs found in Nelson’s clenched fist, which have never been examined despite a 2001 court order to do so. They say those hairs likely belong to the killer and that it’s unclear why they haven’t been tested.
Judge Jeffrey Larson ruled earlier this month that the request for hair testing is “premature” given the posture of the case. He said he’s considering the state’s request to summarily dismiss the matter.
The Iowa Supreme Court upheld Harris’ conviction in 1989, rejecting arguments that the trial should have been moved due to extensive publicity and that police searches were improper. Courts later upheld the conviction even after inmate Loran Cole, now on death row in Florida for a murder conviction, testified he had made up his trial testimony implicating Harris in order to get favorable treatment in a burglary case.
Cole testified at trial that Harris told him in jail that he stabbed Nelson to death after Harris’ brother, Brad Harris, raped her. After his brother was sentenced to life in prison, Brad Harris took a plea agreement that sent him to prison for five years, insisting he was innocent while entering his guilty plea.
Brad Harris is deceased. Daniel Harris, 52, is an inmate at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.