SIOUX CITY — On Friday, images of Kendra and Alysha Suing projected on a video screen in a Sioux City courtroom did not show the smiling, fun-loving girls their family members cherish.
They were photos of two bruised, bloody and barely clothed bodies firefighters had pulled from a smoke-filled house.
The children’s former stepfather, Lawrence Douglas Harris, is on trial, charged with two counts of first-degree murder in their deaths.
Craig Suing, the girls’ biological father, bolted from his seat as prosecutors showed the photos, taken by police, to the jury. Another family member gasped aloud.
The photos showed a traumatic end for Kendra, 10, and Alysha, 8.
Alysha’s face was bruised, a belt wrapped around her neck. She was otherwise naked. Kendra’s body was smeared with blood and she was nearly naked, her shirt pushed up around her armpits.
Court bailiffs moved forward to restrain Suing as the photos were shown, but action wasn’t needed. He only stood, staring at Harris, the man police say stabbed and strangled the girls during a ritual or spell Jan. 6, 2008.
Marla Stroman, the girls’ mother and Harris’ former wife, was not in court. She is expected to testify and, as a witness, is not allowed to attend the trial until then.
Prosecutors began laying out their case against Harris on Friday, the first day of testimony in a trial expected to last two to three weeks.
If convicted, Harris will serve life in prison.
Assistant Woodbury County Attorney Mark Campbell told the jury of seven men and five woman during his opening statements that Harris killed the girls, knew murder was wrong and that Harris, who is expected to use an insanity defense, is not mentally ill.
Psychiatrists in Harris’ home state of California had noted he was manipulative, Campbell said, and a test in Minnesota indicated he could be faking a mental illness.
“This defendant is faking mental illness and is guilty,” Campbell told the jury.
Officer Jason Williams said Harris told him the girls were dead when the officer met him on the front porch.
“He said, ‘They’re (expletive) dead, they’re dead,'” Williams said.
Officer Williams said Harris became more upset — hunching over, dry heaving — when firefighters brought the girls’ bodies out of the house.
Officer Charlotte Gorter testified that when she asked Harris what he thought could have started the fire, he told her it might have been a consequence of a spell.
Harris said he practiced witchcraft, Gorter said, explaining that a spell might have reversed.
He told her “the last time a spell reversed somebody ended up dead,” she said.
Although much of Friday’s testimony centered on what police and firefighters found when they responded to Harris’ 911 call about the fire, others shed light on the family dynamics.
A co-worker said Harris told her the day before the girls’ deaths that he didn’t like Stroman’s idea to let her ex-husband, Craig Suing, stay in the house while visiting his three children later that year.
Harris’ younger brother, Kyle Harris, took the stand and said Lawrence Harris regularly made threats after his frequent arguments with Stroman. Lawrence Harris said he could hurt his then-wife in the worst possible way without touching her, Kyle Harris testified.
Kyle Harris testified that Lawrence Harris had taken up witchcraft in California, where the brothers grew up. He said Lawrence Harris had cast three spells in Iowa, two for protection and a third for an unknown purpose.
He said during cross-examination by defense attorney Williams that Lawrence Harris had previously cast effective spells during a successful custody battle over his infant son in Minnesota.