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It's rare that an accused murderer elicits much sympathy, but Brigitte Harris, the 26-year-old goth who is accused of killing her father and then chopping off his penis, has politicians, advocates, and strangers coming to her defense. Some even say that the victim, 55-year-old Eric Goodridge, had it coming.
Harris is suspected of strangling her father to death on July 28 in her Rockaway apartment, leaving his corpse to be found handcuffed, gagged, and without an important appendage. She reportedly left notes saying "He wrecked my life" and "At first, I blamed myself. Now I know it's not my fault." Harris's innuendo was quickly confirmed by her family and lawyer: Her father had sexually abused her throughout her childhood and teen years.
Almost as soon as the news broke, her lawyer, Arthur Aidala, began a public campaign to draw sympathy for his newest client, and Harris's family followed suit. Harris's sister, Carleen Goodridge, has made repeated public statements about her sister's and her own sexual abuse. They have garnered the support of U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, State Senator Eric Adams, and legions of friends and strangers. Already, supporters are donating to Harris's defense fund through a website that her family set up. Messages of support are collecting on her MySpace pageher screen name is xxladyvengeancexxwhich was changed from private to public access last week. Senator Schumer's office may help in the effort to bring Harris's 15-year-old sister here from Liberia, where she is living with relatives. "I've never represented a suspect in a homicide who got this kind of outpouring of support," said Aidala.
And all of this before Harris has even been officially charged with a crime.
Now, just 10 days after the incident, descriptions of horrific sexual abuse have eclipsed the details of the actual murder. At a Sunday press conference by Harris's supporters, the murder was never mentioned. Rather, Aidala referred to it as a "rape case," casting his client as the victim and her murdered father as an "animal" and "monster."
According to Aidala, Harris suffered repeated rape, forced oral sex, and "every type of penetration" from age three to 17. Her sister said she also suffered the same abuse. Despite attempts by both sisters to inform other relatives, Carleen says, her father was never stopped. When Carleen accused her father of abuse when she was 10 or 11, he allegedly told relatives that he had only been showing his daughter how to wash herself. Later, Harris complained to Carleen that their father was keeping her captive in Liberia, where Goodridge was from and frequently visited. She said he continued to sexually abuse her while keeping her American passport locked away. Harris sought out her mother, who had abandoned both girls at an early age, to help her escape. In the end, Harris's father was able to convince everyone that Harris had made up a horrific tale of abuse just to get her passport back. "It was no secret that my sister didn't want to be in Liberia, but the secret was why," Goodridge remembered.
"There were times where our father would say stuff like 'A dad is supposed to try a daughter out before her husband,' or 'It's OK for a father and daughter to sleep together'and people probably heard it, but you're just paralyzed to comment on something like that," she said. Harris was eventually able to return to New York after turning 18, but could never recover from the abuse. Goodridge said that her sister "hid behind" the image of a dark goth girl. Harris worked for a private security company at Kennedy Airport, and in her free time she reviewed movies online (frequently revenge films), listened to angry music, and went to Broadway shows. "She was so quiet and timid and zoned-out in movies and books and television and music," Goodridge said. "It would take five times to yell out her name before she even heard you."
The case brings up an apparent reluctance to talk about and prosecute familial rape. Senator Eric Adams of Brooklyn said that prosecutors are still catching up with a change in the law regarding incest: Until 2006, rape by a family member was deemed a lesser crime than rape by a stranger. "Now we got to get the prosecutors on board," Adams said at the Sunday press conference supporting Harris, noting that incest cases are notoriously hard to prosecute.
Another group of sympathizers are the proponents of legislation that would reduce the sentences for women who kill their abusers. Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein of Brooklyn is sponsoring a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would allow violent offenders to do less time under certain circumstances. "This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card," Weinstein said. "They would have to prove that the abuse was a substantial fact in committing the crime." That's exactly what Harris's supporters are doing pre-emptively in the court of public opinion. It looks like it might be working.
The Queens district attorney has been unusually slow in filing any charges. A spokesperson for the D.A. said the investigation was still ongoing and couldn't say when and what charges might be filed. Aidala said he hopes the D.A. will "keep an open mind," ostensibly to a lesser charge than first-degree murder. For now, Harris remains at a psychiatric ward in Staten Island, where she will most likely be kept on suicide watch for the rest of the week.
As for the actual murder victim, the funeral is planned for this week. Asked if she was planning on going to mourn her father, Carleen hesitated for a moment; "I don't know yet," she said quietly.