Editor’s note: This story includes graphic details and language.
MERIDIAN — After three and a half years, Marsha Harbour’s family got the only thing that could make a dent in the pain they’ve felt since her murder: justice.
Truitt Pace was convicted on Thursday of first-degree murder for the death of Harbour, his wife. His trial was rescheduled eight times for reasons ranging from COVID-19 delays, changes in the public defender’s office and “time to investigate,” along with other vague explanations listed in court records.
“It’s been a long time for us to wait,” said Courtney Kirkman, Harbour’s sister. “We finally got justice, and she can rest in peace.”
While the family is relieved at the outcome, it came at a price. They had to listen as the defense attacked Harbour’s character — and sit through days of testimony, autopsy photos, gruesome and graphic displays of their loved one’s murder.
Over the last three and a half years the family has waited, haunted by the knowledge Pace was walking around a free man. In the time between Harbour’s murder and the trial, Pace was living in Alabama where he ran a roofing and construction business and got involved with a Pentecostal church. Several church members attended the trial.
During the four day trial, Pace often wandered around the courthouse. Because there was only one door out of the courtroom, he would occasionally breeze by Harbour’s family on his way out.
After Harbour died in the early morning hours of June 16, 2018, Pace, who was originally charged with second-degree murder, bonded out of the Lauderdale County Detention Center. His bond was set at $100,000 by a justice court judge — a relatively low bond, according to the guidelines that dictate bond ranges for certain crimes.
The state provided evidence and witnesses showing Pace shot Harbour in the back of the head at a distance of more than 2-3 feet while their 9-year-old daughter was in the house.
Autopsy photos revealed she was beaten before she was shot. Former State Medical Examiner Dr. Mark LeVaughn testified that in his opinion, the black eyes and abrasion on her right cheek were due to blunt force trauma — not the gunshot wound.
The defense strategy from public defenders Katie Curren and Chris Collins included trying to poke holes in the state’s case, suggesting it was all a horrible accident. They offered details about Harbour’s personal life in an effort to discredit her.
An attempt to reach Curren and Collins for comment Friday was not successful.
They brought up medication she was on, a cosmetic procedure she’d had and a part-time job with a modeling agency where she attended banquets for hunters. Harbour’s former supervisor testified she used the job to supplement her main source of income as a clerk at a medical clinic.
“Marsha’s job was to look pretty and serve men favors while feeding them alcohol,” Curren said in her closing argument, a last-ditch effort at convincing the jury Pace acted accidentally or in self defense.
And because no one actually witnessed Pace abuse Harbour, Curren suggested that maybe she got the bruising and black eyes jurors saw in photos from the “rowdy, drunk men” she saw at her job.
She pointed out Harbour visited a domestic violence shelter to initiate paperwork for a domestic abuse protection order “only after” a divorce attorney told her to — insinuating it was part of Harbour’s plan to win big in the divorce, despite the attorney’s prior testimony that Harbour expressed she wanted a no-fault, or uncontested, divorce.
After Curren concluded, District Attorney Kassie Coleman, who for eight years prosecuted crimes against women and children, stood in front of the jury for the final portion of the state’s closing argument.
Her response to Curren defended not only Harbour, a mother of four, but all women in her position.
“Victim shaming. Victim blaming,” Coleman said. “And we wonder why domestic violence victims don’t come forward and are afraid people won’t believe them.”
Testimony from witnesses painted a picture of a history of domestic violence. Several recalled seeing injuries on Harbour, and Harbour had asked her ex-husband to keep pictures of her injuries from two separate occasions on his phone.
Prior to her death, Harbour confided in a few people about the abuse she endured by Pace. The jury saw photos of injuries she incurred on a couple of occasions — black eyes and bruising on her arms — but she never followed through with pressing any charges. She told one friend she didn’t want him arrested, a common refrain heard from victims.
She also told them she was afraid involving police would make things worse for her and her children — another common sentiment.
Coleman defended Harbour and placed the focus squarely back on Pace, reminding the jury they’d seen “no evidence or testimony” he shot her accidentally.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence say these narratives about victims as crazy, unable to be believed, unstable or money-hungry are a major problem inside the courtroom and out.
“This victim blaming is so difficult for victims. They’re already going through such emotions with the abuse from someone who supposedly loves them and suffering from an avalanche of emotions,” said Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention, which offers resources and shelter to domestic violence victims. “To be blamed for the behavior of an offender is just the worst of all.”
It can also downplay the harm the abuser is capable of inflicting, Middleton said.
“When we talk to these local prosecutors in municipal and justice courts in this state, we try to convince them how lethal some of these offenders are,” Middleton said. “We have to start looking seriously at these misdemeanor domestic violence cases … and putting these people in jail before people are terribly hurt or killed.”
Beth Meeks with the National Network to End Domestic Violence said these narratives are unfortunately exceedingly common” and affect whether women report their abuse.
“Unfortunately these exact narratives about battered women by the abuser are exceedingly common, even by batterers who have not killed their partner,” Meeks said. “What the offender is typically trying to do is erode the victim’s credibility so that charges won’t go forward or so that they will invoke sympathy and get a lighter sentence. Unfortunately this tactic often works.”
Since Harbour is no longer alive, it was her family members in the courtroom who bore the brunt of that narrative.
They listened to the accusations, unable to say a word to defend her. Graphic details of her murder were put on display, including body camera footage from law enforcement showing Harbour lying on a bed, gurgling and wheezing her last breaths.
Her loved ones had to watch as the prosecution showed the jury her autopsy photos, including a picture of the inside of her skull that the medical examiner used to determine that she was beaten before she was killed.
They heard the recording of Pace making the 911 call that took place before the officer arrived — again, with the horrific gurgling breaths audible in the background. Pace wasn’t frantic, or apologetic, and they didn’t hear him speak any comforting words to Harbour as she laid there. They heard Pace tell the dispatcher he hit Harbour “with my fucking fist” and to get an ambulance over because she was “fixing to die.” They heard testimony from the first sheriff’s deputy on scene describing Pace as “calm and emotionless.”
Harbour’s brother Robbie Spears said when he heard the irrelevant and sometimes untrue statements brought up by the defense, he was incredulous.
“Marsha had nothing to be ashamed about,” he said, noting both he and his sister suffered from anxiety and depression after they lost their mother at a young age, then three more family members years later.
Kirkman, Harbour’s sister, was angry.
“No one deserves what happened to Marsha,” she said. “She was treated so cruelly, not only that night but her entire marriage to Truitt.”
In the end, the jury agreed.
After less than an hour of deliberations on the fourth day of the trial, jurors returned their verdict: guilty.
Pace will spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole.