Witness: Fire set  to hide evidence

Christine Marie Wood’s killer used a liquid accelerant on and around her body probably hoping the resulting fire would consume all evidence in the July 1989 slaying, Lafayette’s fire chief testified Wednesday, the second day of Daniel Harmon’s second-degree murder trial.

Fire Chief Robert Benoit, who was an arson investigator on July 26, 1989 ,when a fire broke out at Wood’ second-floor apartment in Marigny Circle, said the fire was started on her bed and that her body was face down and had extra clothing on top.

“If you’re going to burn the body, you are going to have to put some sort of accelerant on it to burn it,” Benoit said.

People set fires for many reasons, including “to hide other crimes, to hide fraudulent acts,” Benoit said. Fires do not always get rid of evidence, he said.

Former Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office Detective Sherry Fiester, who worked the crime scene, testified that Wood was shot once in her right cheek, once near her right ear and once behind her right ear. A grisly photo shown to jurors showed Wood’s killer also tied a ligature around her burned neck.

DNA identification in 1989 was in its infancy, and it wasn’t until years later when prosecutors linked Harmon to DNA evidence found in and on Wood.

Harmon, 44, who is wheelchair-bound after losing his right leg below the waist, showed little emotion during testimony. He was charged by a grand jury in 2006 with first-degree murder in Wood’s death.

The 23-year-old murder case has been problematic for prosecutors for several reasons, including a mistrial in 2011 after Harmon failed to give an on-the-record waiver of his right to a jury trial, different chief suspects, missing witnesses and a reduction of the charge against Harmon to second-degree murder.

Harmon’s attorney, Alfred Boustany II, objected often Wednesday to testimony by witnesses for the prosecution.

At one point Wednesday morning, Judge Glennon P. Everette excused the jury and chastised Boustany for the way he was questioning Gary Cheramie, who was Wood’s live-in boyfriend at the time of her death.

Everette said Boustany in his questioning was trying to suggest Cheramie killed Wood or hired someone to kill her.

Everette said Boustany was making the suggestions “without a shred of evidence.” “I will not let you do that,” the judge said.

Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton Jr., who rose to say something, also was admonished.

“Mr. Hamilton, you already won the argument. Sit down,” Everette said.

Harmon is registered in Louisiana as a tier 3 sex offender, according to Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office records. In 1994, Harmon was convicted in Tennessee of aggravated kidnapping and rape, and must register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life, records show.

Court documents show the Lafayette Parish District Attorney’s office in March charged Harmon with four counts of failing to register as a sex offender in Lafayette.

If convicted of second-degree murder, Harmon will receive an automatic sentence of life imprisonment.