Opening arguments in trial of 1982 murder
Appeal Staff Writer
Prosecutors on Tuesday laid out why they believe David Winfield Mitchell killed former Douglas County beauty queen Sheila Josephine Harris, 18, 25 years ago. But the defense pointed the finger at a deceased member of a prominent Carson City family.
Mitchell, a convicted sex felon and groundskeeper at the apartment complex where Harris lived and died, is responsible, said Assistant District Attorney Gerald Gardner. Eighteen years after the crime, DNA testing revealed it was Mitchell’s semen found on the victim’s body and clothing, he said.
The defense, however, all but said the culprit in Harris’ beating, sexual assault and strangulation was her former boyfriend, Steven Furlong, middle son of former undersheriff and justice of the peace Bill Furlong and brother to current Sheriff Kenny Furlong.
Harris allegedly insulted Furlong in bed just days before her battered body was found in her apartment on Jan. 6, 1982. A month after her death Furlong was arrested for lewdness outside a Reno photolab and hanged himself in the Washoe County Jail, said Public Defender Diane Crow.
On Monday, Jan. 4, Harris spent the night with Furlong at his parents’ home, Crow explained, introducing Furlong to the jury in her opening statement as suffering from epilepsy and hallucinations following a head injury he sustained in the Navy.
She noted that on Jan. 5, Furlong went to the Veteran’s Administration hospital and had a new cast put on his wrist for an injury Crow said he got in a bar fight.
Then, she pointed out, on the morning Harris’ mother Linda Bratton and family friend Janice Broderick discovered Sheila’s lifeless body, face down on her bed and covered by her comforter, Furlong was busy soaking his cast off and throwing it away.
Crow took every opportunity throughout the day to drive that point home with her cross examinations.
“You folks get to pick which ending,” Crow said. “Who killed Sheila Jo.”
Gardner, tried to head off the suggestion in his opening remarks.
“It’s easy to point the finger at Steve Furlong. Steve Furlong is no longer alive,” he said.
Gardner went on to describe Mitchell as “lurking, looking at Sheila.” He said after her body was discovered, the Trinidad native quit his job and left the state.
He said Mitchell denied ever being in Harris’ apartment except perhaps to clean it just a month before she moved in.
Gardner described the crime scene: Harris’ bloody nose and the deep, purple imprint left on her neck from a ligature investigators believe was fashioned from an electrical cord. He talked of how wooden splinters were found on her clothing, flesh, floor, in the hallway and inside the bathroom trash. He mentioned the “mysterious hole in the wall beside the bed,” perhaps a product of the struggle Harris’ had with her killer.
Gardner spoke of how a “Negroid” hair was found on Harris’ bedding and how in 1982, despite the primitive nature of crime scene investigation, detectives had secured blood and hair from the top two suspects, Furlong and Mitchell.
He said in 1999, when DNA technology had blossomed, Washoe County technicians tested the Furlong and Mitchell samples against the semen found on the victim.
The result is indisputable.
“David Mitchell and no other person on the planet was the source of that stain,” Gardner told the jurors, turning to point at the silver-haired father, now 62 years old, sitting quietly at the defense table.
Bratton and Broderick testified to what they found when they went to Harris’ apartment after she failed to show up for her job at Raley’s in Gardnerville.
And lead investigator Mike Efford, formerly of Carson City, took the jury through the stages of the investigation.
During cross examination by Crow, Efford said up to 75 people were interviewed during the course of the investigation. At some point, he’d made a list of “suspectibility” of the top four men suspected in her murder. At the top of the list was Furlong’s name, second came Mitchell, Crow noted.
Efford said he considered Furlong and Mitchell to be on “the same plane,” and so they were both No. 1, and the remaining suspects were two and three.
Crow had Efford tell the jury that Harris’ alarm clock was set for 2:40 a.m. on the morning she was found dead.
He said her wristwatch, laid out flat on her night stand next to the alarm clock, had stopped ticking at 3:15 a.m.
Crow suggested that along with the fact that there was no forced entry into the apartment and no apparent struggle anywhere other than the bedroom, would indicate she knew her assailant, even was expecting him.
But, Efford stated on redirect from Gardner, there was no physical evidence of Furlong’s at the scene – no fingerprints, no hair, no DNA. Testimony is scheduled to resume today.