Criminal Justice

Murder trial begins for man accused of killing a special-needs teenager in the Harris County Jail

For more than two years now, the family of 19-year-old Fred Harris has been pushing for answers after he was attacked and killed while in custody at the jail.

Asa Garcia, Fred Harris' sister, stands with her family outside of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, where the murder trial of Michael Ownby began on Nov. 27, 2023.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Asa Garcia, Fred Harris’ sister, stands with her family outside of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, where the murder trial of Michael Ownby began on Nov. 27, 2023.

The murder trial of a man who allegedly killed a special-needs teenager at the Harris County Jail in 2021 began on Monday.

For more than two years now, the family of 19-year-old Fred Harris has been pushing for the public release of video footage that they say would prove he was attacked and killed by 25-year-old Michael Ownby while in custody at the jail.

On Monday morning, as attorneys selected members of the jury that’ll soon decide Ownby’s fate, Harris’ family gathered outside.

“My family has been going through an immense amount of pain…It’s been two years and we still haven’t received justice,” said Asa Garcia, Fred's sister. “This man needs to take accountability for his actions and we need a guilty verdict.”

According to court records, Harris — who was a special-needs student, according to his family — was booked into the Harris County Jail on Oct. 11 2021 after being charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for “using and exhibiting” a knife.

Court records detail an altercation between Harris and Ownby inside their holding cell around 11 p.m. on Oct. 29. According to court records, Ownby repeatedly kicked Harris in the head, slammed his head against a concrete floor and stabbed him with a makeshift weapon made from a sharpened eating utensil.

Harris was brought to Ben Taub Hospital shortly after the incident and was pronounced brain dead days later.

19-year-old Fred Harris was left brain dead after being stabbed and kicked by another jailed person on Oct. 29, 2021.
Courtesy of Randall Kallinen
19-year-old Fred Harris was left brain dead after being stabbed and kicked by another jailed person on Oct. 29, 2021.

Alongside the family on Monday was Randall Kallinen, a civil rights attorney representing Harris’ family in a federal lawsuit against the county and the sheriff's office. According to Kallinen, security footage of the altercation is expected to be shown during the murder trial.

“The world will finally be able to see exactly how Harris County failed Fred Harris, as it is failing many people,” Kallinen said. “A lot of the blame for this situation lies with the commissioners court of Harris County, who holds the purse strings.”

So far this year, at least 19 people have died while in custody at the jail as the facility continues to struggle under the weight of continuous overcrowding and understaffing. Earlier this month, officials approved an $11 million contract to outsource more incarcerated people from Harris County to a private facility in Mississippi — an unsustainable solution, according to critics.

For the Harris family, this year marks the third Thanksgiving with an empty seat at the table. As they eagerly await an outcome in the trial, his family continues to keep his memory alive.

“He was a good brother,” said Jagger Pruitt, Harris’ younger brother. “I got a lot of good stuff from him and I’m trying to follow his steps to be a good brother to my baby sister.”

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Jagger Pruitt, Harris’ younger brother, stands among family members on Nov. 27, 2023.