Charles Harrelson Trial: 1982-83

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Charles Harrelson Trial: 1982-83

Defendants: Charles Voyde Harrelson, Jo Ann Starr Harrelson, Elizabeth Chagra, Jamiel Chagra
Crimes Charged: Charles Harrelson: conspiracy to murder; murder of a federal judge; conspiracy to obstruct justice. Jo Ann Starr Harrelson: conspiracy to obstruct justice. Elizabeth Chagra: conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice; separate indictment on income tax evasion. Jamiel Chagra: separate trial on murder, conspiracy to murder, conspiracy to obstruct justice; drug conspiracy and trafficking charges; separate indictment on income tax evasion
Chief Defense Lawyers: Charles Harrelson: Thomas G. Sharpe, Jr.; Jo Ann Harrelson: Charles Champion; Elizabeth Chagra: Warren Burnett; Jamiel Chagra: Oscar B. Goodman
Chief Prosecutor: Ray Jahn
Judge: William Sessions
Places: Charles Harrelson: San Antonio, Texas. Jamiel Chagra's trial moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Jo Ann Harrelson tried for perjury, and Jamiel and Elizabeth Chagra tried for tax evasion in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Dates of Trials: October 7, 1982-December 14, 1982 (Charles Harrelson, Jo Ann Harrelson, Elizabeth Chagra); January 10, 1983-February 7, 1983 (Jamiel Chagra); March 1983 (Chagra trials for tax evasion and Jo Ann Harrelson trial for perjury)
Verdicts: Charles Harrelson: guilty of murder of federal judge, conspiracy to murder, conspiracy to obstruct justice. Jo Ann Harrelson: guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice, perjury. Jamiel Chagra: guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice, drug charges, and tax evasion. Elizabeth Chagra: guilty of conspiracy to murder, conspiracy to obstruct justice, tax evasion, conspiracy conviction overturned February 15, 1985, on appeal
Sentences: Charles Harrelson: two life sentences plus five years. Jo Ann Harrelson: 25 years for obstruction of justice and perjury. Elizabeth Chagra: 30 years for conspiracy to murder, two concurrent five year sentences for obstruction of justice and tax evasion. Jamiel Chagra: 15 years and $120,000 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: Charles Harrelson was convicted for a hit-man killing of Judge John H. Wood, the only federal judge to be assassinated in the twentieth century. The trial grew out of one of the largest FBI investigations in history, taking three years and over $5 million. Charles Harrelson's son, the actor Woody Harrelson, later supported a motion for a retrial, based on both the inadequacy of the original defense and the federal government's methods of gathering evidence.

On May 29, 1979, Judge John H. Wood was killed in San Antonio, Texas, by a shot from a high-powered rifle to the back of the head. Judge Wood, known as "maximum John" because of the heavy sentences he had imposed on drug dealers, had presided over the pretrial hearing of Jamiel Chagra, denying 20 defense motions. At the end of the hearing, Jamiel turned to his brother and attorney, Joseph Chagra, and said he would never have a fair trial. He asked if he should have Judge Wood killed. Joseph agreed that he should.

The Chagras were known as key members of a so-called Dixie Mafia, heavily involved in drug smuggling.

The trial of Jamiel Chagra was set for May 29, 1979, but Judge Wood was shot as he left his apartment in Alamo Heights for court.

Investigators suspected that the murder was somehow connected to the growing drug trade in Texas. Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kerr, who had prosecuted several drug cases before Judge Wood, had barely escaped an assassination attempt some six months before Wood was killed. However, there was no physical evidence and investigators had to rely on circumstantial evidence and informants. Investigators questioned several long-term convicts, offering reduced sentences for information about the judge's killing. One, Jerry Ray James, befriended Jamiel Chagra in prison and allowed his conversations to be secretly taped. The government also taped other conversations, including some between Charles Harrelson and his attorney, and others between Joseph and Jamiel Chagra. Agents searched the El Paso homes of the Chagra family. The evidence gathered against Harrelson was somewhat tenuous, and included testimony from Joseph Chagra in return for a reduced sentence, and a letter from Elizabeth Chagra that claimed she had delivered money to Harrelson as a payoff for the murder.

Chagra Testifies for Prosecution

When the murder trial got underway in San Antonio, in exchange for a guilty plea to commit conspiracy to murder and a sentence of 10 years, Joseph Chagra testified against Harrelson, who he claimed was the hit man. Joseph testified as well against his own sister-in-law Elizabeth Chagra, and Harrelson's wife, Jo Ann. Joseph Chagra refused to testify against his own brother Jamiel (Jimmy), however. In addition to the testimony of Joseph Chagra, the government had evidence drawn from more than 1,000 recorded telephone and face-to-face conversations, most of them involving Jamiel Chagra in various prisons. Tapes of Jerry Ray James' extensive conversations with Jamiel spelled out details of the plot to kill the judge. Federal authorities claimed that attorney-client privileges did not protect conversations between Joseph and Jamiel Chagra, because Joseph (the attorney) was himself a suspect in the conspiracy to conceal the crime.

The prosecution charged that Harrelson, who had earlier served five years before being paroled of a 15-year sentence for killing a man for a $2,000 fee, killed Judge Wood in exchange for a promised $250,000 payment by Jamiel Chagra.

Kathryn Wood, the widow of the slain judge, provided a five-page handwritten letter from Elizabeth Chagra, apologizing for her involvement in the murder. In the letter, Elizabeth relayed conversations about plans to kill Wood and told of her own delivery of the payoff money to Las Vegas.

Harrelson Alleges Complicated Set-up

Harrelson claimed that he was set up. He claimed that a fellow gambler, George (Pete) Kay had bilked Jamiel Chagra by claiming that Charles Harrelson had killed the judge and should collect the $250,000 fee. In effect, he was being tried for murder, when he claimed that his only involvement was in a con-game to get the murder pay-off money for a killing performed by someone else. Harrelson argued that Kay's wife had purchased a Weatherby hunting rifle of the type used to kill the judge some 12 days before the killing. Jo Ann had purchased the rifle under a false name, Mrs. "Fay King." She had then given the rifle to George Kay. Harrelson also testified that Kay had borrowed his own distinctive gold-colored Oldsmobile, similar to one seen near the judge's apartment on the day of the killing. Harrelson claimed that when the murder took place, he was in Dallas, 270 miles away.

Harrelson said that Kay had about $135,000 of the payoff money delivered to him by Elizabeth Chagra as part of the scam. She, in turn, claimed she thought the payoff was for a gambling debt, and did not believe her husband when he claimed, "This is for the judge."

Verdicts and Convictions

Jamiel Chagra was acquitted of murder and conspiracy to murder but convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy to possess marijuana; he was later convicted of tax evasion. Jo Ann Harrelson was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and later convicted of five counts of perjury. Elizabeth Chagra was convicted of conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conspiracy conviction February 15, 1985, on the grounds that the prosecution failed to show premeditation and malice. In exchange for agreeing to testify against Charles, Jo Ann Harrelson and Elizabeth Chagra faced only the lesser charges. Joseph Chagra pled guilty to the charge of conspiracy to commit murder and received a sentence of ten years. Jamiel Chagra was tried separately, in Jacksonville, Florida and received a sentence of 15 years and was fined $120,000 on the charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy to possess marijuana. Without his brother's testimony, Jamiel was acquitted of conspiracy to murder charges.

Harrelson's jury found him guilty of murder of a federal employee, and he was also convicted on the charges of conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice. He was sentenced to two life sentences. His wife received a total of 25 years on the conspiracy and perjury charges; Elizabeth received 30 years on the conspiracy and tax evasion charges.

Harrelson's Son Funds Appeal

Woody Harrelson, the actor who played the part of the affable bartender in the television series Cheers, and also the lead in The People vs. Larmy Flynt, mounted an appeal in 1998, hiring famed criminal attorney Alan Dershowitz. However, after a game of pickup basketball between Woody and Fred Biery, the judge scheduled to hear the case, the judge disqualified himself and the case was continued to the year 2000, to be heard before Judge Orlando Garcia in Denver.

Among other points, Woody said that his father had spent only $7,000 on his defense, compared to the $5 to $10 million spent by the federal government in marshalling evidence. Further, most of the evidence and testimony against Charles Harrelson had been gathered from prisoners who were offered reduced sentences in exchange for implicating Harrelson. As of mid-2001, the appeal remained postponed.

Rodney Carlisle

Suggestions for Further Reading

King, Wayne. "Three Are Found Guilty of Assassination of Federal Judge." New York Times (December 15, 1982).

"The Judge Wood Murder Case." Newsweek (June 22, 1981).

"Texas SniperThe Charge: Murdering a Judge." Time (October 25, 1982).

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Charles Harrelson Trial: 1982-83

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