Killer Smile

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"He was obsessed with having sex with me. That's all we talked about all night long...At the end, he wanted just five minutes of my time," she testified.

Sometime after the 2 a.m. closing, Sells had been asked to leave by another male patron. Hours later, he allegedly climbed through an open window at the Harris family trailer five miles to the west with rape and murder on his mind.

Prosecutors put Houchins on the stand to establish Sells' state of mind. In order to convict him of capital murder, they had to show he killed Harris while intentionally committing another felony, in this case sexual assault, and his fate turned on the slender legal reed of intent. In what was to remain a pattern, Garcia asked only a few questions of Houchins on cross-examination. For the defense, the guilt or innocence phase of the trial was nearly irrelevant. "It was just a speed bump on the way to sentencing," Garcia said later.

The slain girl's parents, Crystal and Terry Harris, testified next, telling how they had befriended Sells at Grace Community Church and how he had come to the family trailer on Guajia Bay outside of town. "He came to talk to my husband about marital problems and problems with his job," said Crystal Harris in a near whisper. Mrs. Harris testified how she awoke on December 31 with her home full of police, having slept through the attack.

Her husband later testified how, while leaving Del Rio for Kansas on the evening of December 30, 1999, he had run into Sells at a local convenience store. "He asked me about the luggage in the back, and I said I was taking a short trip up north and would be back soon," recalled Harris. In other words, Sells knew there was no man in the house that night.

And then, on the afternoon of the first day of trial, Krystal Surles took the stand and told what she had seen when she awoke in her top bunk to find a strange, bearded man in Kaylene Harris' bedroom. It was a chapter from a child's book of nightmares: The man under the bed was real. "He was standing behind her with one hand over her mouth, and a knife right here," said Surles, indicating her throat. "She was struggling, and she told me with her eyes to stay there and not to move, so I did. I laid there but I could still see. He took the knife and slit her throat. She just fell," she testified. "She started making really bad noises, like she was gagging for air but couldn't get any breath because of all the blood," she said. Then, she testified, the bearded man turned to her. "I told him, 'I'll be quiet. I promise. I'm not making a noise. I won't say nothing. It's Katy making the noise,'" she testified. The man said nothing when he reached the bed. "He reached over and cut my throat. I just laid there and pretended I was dead. If he knew I was alive, he would have come back and killed me for sure," she said.

Surles broke down once during her testimony, but recovered to finish. Throughout, she kept a steady eye on the defendant. When she finished testifying, the trial was over for Tommy Sells. The rest, stretching over two days, was mere aftermath. The prosecution showed videotape of Sells doing a walk-through of the Harris trailer, complete with climbing through the unlocked window and a narration of the attacks on the two girls. "I woke this girl up. I said wake up. She jumped. I cut her throat," he said of Harris, before turning his attention to Surles in the top bunk. "She was awake. She just laid there. I walked over to her and cut this one's throat. I was getting a little nervous. I walked out the back door," he said on the tape.

Prosecutors also entered into evidence Sells' two written confessions, including one in which he acknowledges forceful sexual advances toward Kaylene. In one of his confessions, he said he had considered killing all six people in the trailer. In another, he said he had first considered raping Crystal Harris. In still another, he claimed he had gone to the trailer to collect a $5,000 drug debt from Terry Harris. Police, however, said later they found no basis for this claim, which Harris denied.

In cross-examination, Garcia repeatedly sought to establish that Sells had been cooperative and had expressed remorse and responsibility for his actions.

"For Tommy Sells, it boils down to the death penalty or life. If I can get him life, I've done my job," said Garcia before trial. After deliberating for an hour, the jury found Sells guilty of capital murder.

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John Maccormack