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Charles Harrelson Trial: 1982-83

Chagra Testifies For Prosecution, Harrelson Alleges Complicated Set-up, Verdicts And Convictions, Harrelson's Son Funds Appeal

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.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988