Death Wish

Maricopa County prosecutors want the man convicted of murdering Phoenix heiress Jeanne Tovrea on death row--and they're posing some novel legal theories in an effort to get him there.

James "Butch" Harrod faces an April 6 sentencing before Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein. A jury last November convicted the 45-year-old Harrod in one of Arizona's most infamous crimes, the April 1988 execution of Tovrea as she lay sleeping in her bed in a gated neighborhood on East Lincoln Drive.

Unsolved for years, the murder case broke open after Harrod's former in-laws told police through a middleman that his ex-wife, Anne, could implicate him. Harrod's fingerprints and palm prints matched those on a kitchen window through which the killer entered Tovrea's sprawling home, and on other key locations.

Despite that, Harrod didn't confess to police after his September 1995 arrest. He maintains his innocence. His motive for murder, according to prosecutors? Money, both for Harrod and the alleged mastermind of the plot, Edward "Hap" Tovrea Jr.--the victim's stepson and a quasi-business associate of Harrod.

Through the terms of Hap Tovrea's father's will, Jeanne Tovrea's demise meant, on paper, millions of dollars for Hap Tovrea and his two sisters. Prosecutors alleged Hap Tovrea offered Harrod $100,000 "to arrange for Jeanne Tovrea's murder," and actually paid him more than $35,000.

"To be sure," prosecutors Bill Culbertson and Paul Ahler say in presentencing papers, "these monies were paid pursuant to an agreement between Hap and Harrod to kill Jeanne Tovrea in order for Hap (and possibly others) to inherit monies which Hap felt Jeanne was squandering."

But the prosecutors haven't been "sure" enough to charge Hap Tovrea with anything in the murder case.

The most unusual prosecution argument for the death penalty concerns the allegation that Harrod committed the murder "in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner"--a term of art sanctioned by legislators years ago.

"Cruelty" occurs when a killer inflicts mental anguish or physical abuse before the homicide. (One example: Two Phoenix men dropped large rocks on their still-conscious robbery victim after pushing her off a cliff. The Arizona Supreme Court said that fit the legal definition of "cruelty.")

Prosecutors contend that Harrod's "stalking" of Jeanne Tovrea amounted to the infliction of psychological pain and should be considered "cruel." They are referring to evidence that Harrod claimed to be a writer for Time Life--he called himself "Gordon Phillips"--in a successful effort to gain access to his target. Testimony also showed that Jeanne Tovrea became frightened of "Phillips," going so far as to contact a retired CIA official to check him out.

"The defendant's protracted stalking of Jeanne over a period of months was directly related to her murder," prosecutors claim. ". . . Harrod mentally tormented Jeanne for several months through repeated telephone calls demanding a personal meeting, and by personally meeting with Jeanne in California."

But prosecutors concede they can't find any Arizona appellate decisions that connect prolonged stalking with "cruelty" in death-penalty cases.

Throughout the 16-page memorandum, prosecutors use the plural--"killers"--even though Harrod has been the only person charged in Jeanne's murder. And they're not referring to Hap Tovrea, who has an alibi for his whereabouts on the night of the murder:

"The defendant's confession to his ex-wife proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he hired others to help him murder Jeanne Tovrea," the memorandum says.

"There is an unidentified fingerprint on Jeanne's kitchen window glass pane which had been removed from its frame allowing the killers to effect entry into [her] home. There remain several unidentified prints on the molding which held this pane of glass intact. There remain unidentified prints on the kitchen countertop in the victim's kitchen" and on a jewelry box near Jeanne's bed.

Court observers draw a parallel between Harrod's predicament and that of LaVonnie Wooten, convicted in the 1993 first-degree murder of a Glendale woman.

Wooten is the cousin of onetime Phoenix Suns forward Jerrod Mustaf. Prosecutors alleged during Wooten's trial that Mustaf had paid Wooten to commit the murder of Althea Hayes, his 27-year-old pregnant ex-girlfriend, after Hayes refused his offer of $5,000 to have an abortion.

Hayes was shot four times, twice in the back of the head, in the July 1993 slaying, shortly after she'd contacted a lawyer about seeking child support from Mustaf. Both prosecution and defense attorneys during Wooten's trial named Mustaf as the plot's mastermind--the prosecution to show motive, and the defense in an attempt to divert blame.

Wooten's girlfriend testified he'd told her he owed Mustaf a favor, and traveled with her from his home in Maryland to Arizona "to take care of business."

Like Hap Tovrea, Mustaf has denied any wrongdoing.
Judge Reinstein in July 1996 rejected the pleas of prosecutors to sentence Wooten to death. He ruled the state hadn't shown that the murder fit the legal criteria of "cruel, heinous or depraved." Reinstein also said prosecutors failed to prove Wooten committed the murder for money, another factor that could have led to the death penalty.

Wooten is serving a life sentence without parole in a maximum-security prison in Florence.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin