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Mother convicted of strangling 4-year-old son has conviction overturned

Nicole Harris whose 2006 convictifor murder her shas been overturned.

Nicole Harris, whose 2006 conviction for the murder of her son has been overturned.

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Updated: November 21, 2012 6:08AM

A Chicago mother convicted of strangling her 4-year-old son has had her conviction overturned after a federal appellate court ruled that her 6-year-old son was wrongly prevented from testifying that the death was a tragic accident.

Nicole Harris has been locked up since May 2005, when she allegedly used the elastic from a bedsheet to strangle little Jaquari Dancy in a pique of rage at their Northwest Side home. Convicted a year later based primarily on a confession she later recanted, she was sentenced to 30 years behind bars.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled late Thursday that Jaquari’s older brother, Diante — who was in the top bunk when Jaquari died below him at the family home in the 2000 block of North Laporte — was wrongly barred from testifying at trial.

Diante would have testified that Jaquari wrapped the elastic around his own neck as part of a “SpiderMan game,” accidentally asphyxiating himself while their mother was at a nearby laundry. Justices Daniel Anthony Manion, Michael Steven Kanne and David F. Hamilton said that the evidence might have been enough to clear Harris, ruling that Cook County Judge Lon William Shultz wrongly found Diante not competent to testify.

The ruling means the Cook County state’s attorney has 120 days to decide whether to retry Harris, or she will be released from Dwight Correctional Center.

The state’s attorney’s office is waiting for the Illinois attorney general’s office, which handled the appeal, to review the ruling before deciding whether the case should be retried, a spokesman said.

Harris, who was told of the ruling by her legal team Thursday, was “stunned” and “overjoyed,” attorney Bob Stauffer said. He said Harris had been “very distressed to have lost one child, only to be locked up and kept away from the rest of her family.”

Alison Flaum, who also represented Harris, added, “We hope very much that this nightmare is over for her.”

At her sentencing in 2006, Harris insisted she was the innocent victim of a “terrible injustice,” even as she was described by prosecutors as a monster with an “explosive temper” who attacked her son in a “cobra” strike after he wouldn’t stop crying.

Court records show she had a previous conviction for domestic battery, had been ordered to attend anger-management classes, and had beaten Jaquari with a belt earlier on the day he died. But the key evidence against her was a videotaped confession she gave to police — a confession she later said was coerced.

The appeal court judges said that evidence should have been balanced by Diante’s account. Just because the little boy believed in Santa Claus and Spider-Man, it did not make his “testimony about his real-life experiences unreliable,” Hamilton wrote.

The justices said Shultz had misinterpreted the law when he required Harris’ legal team to prove Diante was competent to testify, rather than requiring prosecutors to show the boy was not competent, adding that Harris’ lawyers ineffectively defended her. Their ruling overturns a state appellate court decision that upheld the conviction.

It notes that if Harris is retried, Diante will likely now be a better witness for her. By the time he testifies, he would be 13 or 14.

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