Victim ’s spouse gets 40 years

An appellate court has affirmed a Baker man’s manslaughter conviction and 40-year prison sentence in the brutal stabbing death of his wife, lawyer Chiquita Tate, in her downtown Baton Rouge office in 2009.

A three-judge panel of the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, however, said “we are convinced that any rational trier of fact ... could find that the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt ... all of the elements of second-degree murder.”

“That’s of course what we felt,” East Baton Rouge Parish First Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns, the lead prosecutor at Greg Harris’ second-degree murder trial, said Tuesday.

A second-degree murder conviction would have carried an automatic sentence of life in prison.

The 1st Circuit panel, though, said it would not substitute its own “appreciation of the evidence and credibility of witnesses for that of the fact finder ...”

Harris’ appellate attorney, Michele Fournet, said the appeals court’s decision Friday was disappointing and vowed to keep fighting.

“We’re definitely not stopping,” Fournet said Tuesday, adding that she will either ask the 1st Circuit to rehear the case or filed an appeal at the Louisiana Supreme Court, or both.

An East Baton Rouge Parish jury found Harris, now 41, guilty of manslaughter on April 9, 2011, in the Feb. 20, 2009, slaying of Tate, 34, at the State National Life Building on Third Street. She was stabbed 43 times.

State District Judge Trudy White imposed a 40-year prison term, the maximum allowed for manslaughter.

The 1st Circuit panel, which said the sentence was not unconstitutionally excessive, noted that maximum sentences may be imposed for the most serious offenses and the worst offenders.

“This was the most serious offense because the defendant brutally stabbed the victim to death,” Circuit Judge Toni Higginbotham wrote for the panel. “The defendant is the most serious offender because after the murder of the victim, he used an ‘elaborate ruse’ to attempt to escape suspicion after the offense.”

White used the words “elaborate ruse” when she sentenced Harris in September 2011.

Burns argued at the trial and sentencing that strands of hair were placed in the open palm of Tate’s left hand to make it appear her attacker was a female, and that her Gucci wallet was discarded in the Gardere Lane area in hopes that an “unsuspecting thief’’ would use her credit cards and unwittingly become a murder suspect.

Harris told police he was in the Gardere Lane area the night his wife was murdered, but said he went there to buy steroids.

Tate married Harris in February 2008, one year before her death.

Burns also argued that Harris left behind a trail of battered women from 1997 to 2009, including two former live-in girlfriends. Fournet contends White erred when she allowed the admission of alleged prior incidents of his misconduct.

“The challenged evidence showed the defendant’s pattern of questioning the whereabouts of the women he lived with, and becoming violent with them if he suspected they had been with other men,” Higginbotham wrote. “It also demonstrated the defendant thought the women he lived with were ‘nasty’ if they failed to clean his home as thoroughly as he desired.”

Circuit Judges Vanessa Whipple and Page McClendon agreed with Higginbotham.

Tate’s body was found after Harris called 911 and flagged down a police officer on patrol. He told police he went to the building to check on his wife after she did not come home from work the night before.