On September 14, 2009, Brigitte Harris sat next to her lawyer in Queens State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens, her rainbow-colored hair extensions gone, her goth gear replaced by a demure black sweater and purple shawl. In the two years it had taken for her case to make it to trial, she had ballooned to more than 300 pounds—a combined effect of the junk food at Rikers Island and the antidepressants she’d been prescribed.
Harris had been declared mentally fit to stand trial—she was depressed and disassociated emotionally, therapists said, but never delusional. The facts of the case weren’t in dispute. The physical evidence showed how she did it; the confession video explained why. As for what may have driven her to do it, the prosecutor argued in her opening statement that whatever horrors Harris had endured at the hands of her father should have little bearing on the crime itself. “I’m not going to stand up here and say that the abuse did or didn’t happen,” Karen Ross said. “But what I will tell you is that at no time did she ever report it to the police, to child services, or even to members of her own family. Instead, this defendant chose to take the law into her own hands. She made a deliberate choice to make a plan, to execute that plan, to put that plan into action.”
Harris’s lawyer, Arthur Aidala, who tried the case alongside co-counsel Michael Cibella, offered the jury the same set of facts with a completely different interpretation. He wasn’t saying a crime hadn’t occurred; he wasn’t even saying Harris wasn’t in some way responsible. Instead he was saying that the jury should consider not just what Harris did to her father but everything her father had done to her. “If she [Ross] wants to talk about vengeance, you have to keep in mind, revenge only exists because there was an original sin,” he said. “Something that happened in the past.” Then, over the next hour, Aidala went through every known detail of the abuse, sparing no details. “The legal system wasn’t getting it right, so she had to stop him—because he just wouldn’t be stopped,” he said. “And the only way to stop him was to take off his weapon of mass destruction.”
The judge had given the jury the option of two different manslaughter charges, first- and second-degree, along with the second-degree murder charge. A conviction of second-degree murder also might have been downgraded to first-degree manslaughter on the grounds of “extreme emotional disturbance,” a mitigating defense that argues that the perpetrator had been somehow driven to act by what he or she perceived as a legitimate threat. Harris’s case, then, depended not just on whether the jury believed Harris was guilty but whether she had been, in some general way, provoked into an act of self-defense. She took the stand early on, and Aidala spent most of his time with her putting her father’s actions front and center. Later on, Carleen also took the stand. She couldn’t be asked directly about the abuse, but she managed to display sympathy toward her sister in full view of the jury.
Deliberations took just a day. On September 30, 2009, the jury acquitted Harris of both second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Instead, it found her guilty of second-degree manslaughter, the most lenient possible charge, for what was clearly a premeditated act. Even Harris was shocked. She had never thought that her story would inspire so much sympathy. “They knew I should have been charged with something, even though I didn’t intend to kill him,” she says now. “They were just trying to find a way to work around it.”
In order to settle on manslaughter 2, the jury had to be convinced that Harris’s actions, while clearly demonstrating a reckless disregard for human life, weren’t meant to kill. Some of the jurors seized on the fact that it wasn’t the cutting off of Goodridge’s penis that killed him, but the gagging. “I felt she didn’t seem reckless by putting the towel in her father’s mouth,” says juror George Tsourakis. “You see that all the time in the movies. I wouldn’t have thought he’d die from that, either. But her actions did contribute to his death, so the manslaughter-2 charge fit. We gave her what she deserved.”
Seven of the jurors were so supportive of Harris that in the days leading up to her sentencing, they wrote the judge, asking him to give her no more jail time at all. “Brigitte was sentenced on the day her father molested her,” wrote Blanche O’Donnell. “She deserves a life full of love and support, not prison.” One juror sent Harris a book as a gift. Still another sent her a Whitney Houston CD. Several social workers from Rikers pledged to find her a job and give her free counseling if the judge would set her free.