Lashuan Harris sat silently in court Monday and did not react visibly as a prosecutor and witnesses described how she undressed her three children and threw them off a San Francisco pier into the Bay, killing them one by one just over a year ago.
The 24-year-old Oakland woman wore a light blue pantsuit on the first day of her trial on charges of murder and assault on a child under 8 causing death. Public defender Teresa Caffese did not deny allegations that Harris threw her three children into the Bay on Oct. 19, 2005. Opening arguments Monday focused on whether she knew that she was actually taking her children’s lives.
Harris has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, meaning that if she is found to have done the killings, the trial will go into a second phase in which the jury will decide whether she was mentally fit enough to take responsibility for her actions.
“Even though she is mentally ill, she made this choice,” prosecutor Linda Allen said in her opening statement. “She knew what she was doing when she threw her children to their death.” Allen portrayed a woman who, in almost all ways, was aware of her surroundings and capable of making decisions. She will try to prove that, despite Harris’ documented schizophrenia, the young mother had the reasoning power to know that what she did was murder.
Allen indicated that, in video of Harris’ interviews with homicide inspectors, Harris “knows who she is, she knows where she is and she knows what happened.” Allen said Harris answered factual questions about herself and her family accurately.
But Caffese maintained that Harris, even now, has no grasp on reality. Harris was in a “bubble,” she said. “God told Lashuan in her mind, in her reality, what time and in what manner to send her children to heaven,” Caffese said during her opening statement.
“She floats among our reality, but she’s in her own reality in that bubble,” Caffese said outside the courtroom. In her statement, Caffese said Harris had been hospitalized six times for psychiatric episodes, but had not received ongoing care.
Caffese said Harris sent her children to heaven, “as we would think that we were traveling to another state.”
Witnesses recount tragedy by Bay
Members of Lashuan Harris’ family dabbed their eyes and sniffed audibly as they heard witnesses recall the day Harris threw her three children off Pier 7 to their deaths in the chilly Bay waters.
Her oldest son, 6-year-old Trayshawn Harris, shouted “no, mommy, no,” over and over as Harris stripped off his clothes, witness Yashpal Singh testified Monday.
Singh said he was on the pier with his two children shortly after 5 p.m. on Oct. 19, 2005, when he saw Harris chasing a barely clad Trayshawn. Singh thought Harris was trying to change Trayshawn’s clothes, he said, and he paid them little attention.
But when Harris caught up to Trayshawn and stripped the remainder of his clothes off, she lifted him up by one arm and one leg, Singh said. “She was standing between the bench and the rail and she started to sway him,” he testified.
Harris swung Trayshawn back and forth, then let go, flinging him over the railing of the pier and into the icy water below, Singh said. Trayshawn’s cries followed him down, according to Singh.
According to charges leveled by the District Attorney’s Office, Harris stripped 6-year-old Trayshawn, 2-year-old Taronta Greely Jr. and 16-month-old Joshua Greely of their clothes and threw each over the pier’s railing.
“I kind of became concerned about my kids,” Singh said. He said he turned and whispered to his 8-year-old son that they and his 2-year-old son should leave. As they walked away, Singh said, he dialed 911 to report the incident. He and his children went to the nearby Waterfront restaurant to wait for police to arrive, Singh said.
Officer Michael White, who was one of the first two officers on the scene, said the Bay water was rough, flecked with white caps, and that the tide was going out “at a very fast pace.” When he and his partner made contact with Harris, whom Singh identified, Harris said her babies were “with their father.”
Harris was pushing an empty stroller full of baby clothes, and said she had thrown the children off the pier, White said. “When she stated that she threw the babies into the water, I came up behind her and put the cuffs on her,” White said.
White ran to the end of the pier to look for the children in the water, but did not see them from the pier. Only one body, that of 2-year-old Taronta, was ever found.