A man who murdered an entire family with a tire iron in 2009 in their Beason, Ill. home tried to use video games as part of his defense earlier this week. After one day of deliberations a jury delivered a stinging verdict.
Chris Harris has been found guilty of five counts of first-degree murder for the 2009 mass murder of five members of his ex-wife's family at their home in a small town in central Illinois. The victims were the Gee family, which included parents Ruth Gee and Raymond "Rick" Gee, Rick's 22-year-old son Austin Gee, and Ruth's children, 14-year old Dillen and 16-year-old Justina Constant. The Gees' three-year-old daughter Tabitha was also beaten severely by Harris, but managed to survive the attack. Chris Harris knew the family because he had been married to Rick Gee's adult daughter, Nicole Gee. She was not in the house at the time of the crime.
Harris, who faced a mountain of forensic evidence and witness testimony including his own brother and a former cellmate, alleged at trial that he had walked in on a gruesome crime in progress and barely escaped with his own life.
On May 28, a familiar expert witness testified for the defense in the Chris Harris murder trial about the effects of violent video games. We mentioned in a report earlier this month that Harris claimed that he had walked in on a murder spree in progress and had no choice but to defend himself against one of the teenaged victims. His defense was a variation on the "Video Games Made Me Do It" defense, but instead he put the blame on 14-year-old victim Dillen Constant.
The defense tried to paint the victim (who was bludgeoned to death) as an anti-social at-risk teen whose rage and anger was exacerbated by playing video games. This, the defense argued, led to Dillen killing his entire family on the night of September 29, 2009 – which Harris claimed to have walked into in progress.
To drive this angle home, the defense called Iowa State University professor and researcher Craig Anderson. On May 28 he testified about a report he created for the case based on documents sent to him by the defense..
During his testimony Anderson said that Dillen had multiple risk factors including anti-social behavior, ADD, learning problems, aggression, and a troubled home life. He also pointed to incidents in the past where Dillen had pulled knives on his sister and other people, and noted that Dillen kept a knife and a golf club in his room. Anderson also noted that Dillen would have emotional outburst at times, had an incident where he cut up bus seats, and had stolen things from his parents including money and "porn."
Dillen was held back in the first grade, Anderson noted, and had trouble with reading, math, and writing because he had a learning disability. He would also often refuse to do his homework. Anderson then pointed out that Dillen's home life was not ideal; he said that his parents could often be abusive to him and that his parents' drug use and sexual activities in the "swinger community" likely had an effect on Dillen.
Then Anderson moved on to video game violence and the affect it might have had on Dillen's behavior. Anderson testified that research has shown that playing violent video games can lead to aggressive behavior. The defense then moved to discuss three save games on Dillen's PS2 – for Mortal Kombat. After describing the fatalities in the game – one character ripping another's spine out – the jury was shown various fatalities from Mortal Kombat: Armageddon.
But on cross examination, Anderson was put on the defensive as the prosecution drilled down into his expert testimony on video game violence and research. First he was asked if he had ever played Mortal Kombat and if it had made him violent.
Anderson said that he had in fact played the game many years ago and indicated that it did not make him violent.
Anderson also admitted that he didn't talk to anyone (including therapists, teachers, school officials, or family members) familiar with Dillen's behavior when preparing his report for the defense. The prosecution pointed out that Anderson's first draft of his report listed six risk factors, but a later draft listed 16. Anderson responded by saying that prior aggression is the highest indicator of violence. Anderson also admitted that he had no way of knowing if the documents he used for his report were accurate. The prosecution also pointed out that Dillen's grades had been improving over time and that in some subjects he was getting "A's" and "B's."
Focusing on violent video games, the prosecution pointed out that 70 percent of adolescents play video games and the majority of them do not commit violent crimes. But the real zinger came when the prosecution asked Anderson if Pac Man eating a ghost could be considered violent by some definitions. Anderson says that it could.
Later the prosecution got Anderson to acknowledge that there has never been a study that shows violent video games have been directly linked to violent acts. The prosecution ended its cross examination by pointing out the decision in Brown v. EMA and how some Justices criticized some of the methodologies used in Anderson's own research.
On re-direct, Anderson said that the decision by the Supreme Court looked like it was written by the video games industry and that he felt like the video game industry went out of its way to personally attack him.
Ultimately Anderson's research did little to persuade the jury that Dillen was responsible for the murders of the rest of the family on that late September night in 2009. The evidence collected by police, Harris's own misstatements to the police, his brother's testimony and a procession of witnesses had more weight with jurors, it seems. Now all that remains is sentencing. As of this writing we do not know when the court has scheduled that hearing…
Interestingly enough, we later learned that another researcher was involved in the case. Texas A&M International University associate professor, Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson, consulted with the prosecution on the case, but was never called as a witness. While not getting into the specifics of his involvement in the case, Ferguson did provide GamePolitics with his thoughts on the trial when we contacted him this afternoon.
When asked about Anderson's testimony during the trial, Ferguson didn't pull any punches.
"I had ethical issues with a non-clinician making statements about whether a particular child did or did not have risk factors for violence without having training in making such assessments, nor using properly validated tools for the same, nor speaking to any of the deceased child's surviving family members to get information," Ferguson told us. "It's fine for researchers to talk about research on risk factors in a general sense, of course, but once they begin talking about a particular individual, they've entered clinical territory and, to my mind, shouldn't do that without proper training."
Ferguson was also critical of Anderson's use of research in this case:
"This was a clear misuse of what is, at best, ambiguous data on violent video games and mild forms of aggression, to tar the character of a murder victim because he happened to be a teen who liked Mortal Kombat. This is an example of both the irresponsible excesses of this field and a need for why scholars in this field need to have a more critical discussion about when we do more harm than good when we over communicate ambiguous lab-based studies to real-life phenomena like mass murder or other crimes. Had a mass murderer been set free over this, real harm would have been done. This field needs to take a good hard look at itself and recalibrate. "
We'll have more on this story as it develops.