The Kelsey Harris who spent hours on the stand in a Los Angeles courtroom this week had no idea who shot Megan Thee Stallion.
She said she couldn’t remember if the man accused of the crime, Canadian rapper Tory Lanez, had offered her money in exchange for her silence in court. She wouldn’t even say definitively that Megan Thee Stallion had been shot, repeatedly noting that’s what “Megan’s team” told her, even though there’s no dispute that she sat next to the bloodied hit maker that night in an SUV.
The most important details of that July 2020 night were “a blur,” Harris said in court this week, memories lost to an alcohol-induced fog caused by doing one too many shots at a Hollywood Hills party hosted by makeup mogul Kylie Jenner.
The Kelsey Harris who spoke to prosecutors for one hour and 20 minutes in September, however, had a much clearer memory.
“You start hearing gunshots … I look up maybe at the second or third gunshot … you see Tory … he’s leaning over, the door’s open,” Harris said, according to a tape of the interview played in court Friday. “He’s shooting over the top of the door, the right front passenger side.”
The chasm between the two stories woven by Harris three months apart will play a critical role when jurors begin deliberating next week on the assault charges filed against Lanez, whose real name is Daystar Peterson.
With the prosecution’s star witness gone rogue in court, legal experts say jurors could choose to believe the version of her that exists on tape, calmly identifying Peterson as the shooter. But the confusion could just as easily prove fertile ground for reasonable doubt and lead to an acquittal.
“It’s a defense lawyer’s dream,” said Dmitriy Shakhnevich, a New York defense attorney and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Any defense lawyer would say look to the extent that you don’t know what’s going on … that the burden is on the prosecution. You look at the prosecution if your head is spinning.”
There were only three other people inside the SUV that the “Savage” rapper, whose real name is Megan Pete, was riding in the night of the July 2020 shooting: Harris, Peterson and Peterson’s driver, Jaquan Smith.
Pete has accused Peterson of shooting her, and Peterson has denied all wrongdoing. It is unclear if Smith will take the stand. That leaves Harris — Pete’s estranged best friend and former assistant — as the lone independent witness to the night’s violent events.
In his opening statement Monday, L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Alexander Bott cited Harris as a critical witness and displayed a text message she sent to Pete’s head of security the night of the shooting. It read, “Tory shot Meg.”
Pete’s personal attorney, Alex Spiro, also previously told The Times that Harris would provide “devastating evidence” against Peterson.
But when Harris arrived in court Wednesday, she was flanked by an attorney, Daniel Nardoni, who said she would be invoking her 5th Amendment right to protect herself from self-incrimination unless prosecutors offered her immunity.
Peterson’s defense team has long intended to paint Harris as the shooter, noting that she had gunshot residue on her hands, while Peterson’s DNA was not found on the weapon used to shoot Pete.
The district attorney’s office did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Peterson’s lead defense counsel, George Mgdesyan, declined a request for an interview about Harris’ behavior on the stand this week.
Harris’ lawyer, Nardoni, said he informed prosecutors his client would be invoking her 5th Amendment rights on Tuesday, the night before she was scheduled to testify. During a hearing in chambers, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Herriford “concluded it was a valid assertion and [Harris] did not have to answer questions in the absence of being given immunity,” Nardoni said.
Nardoni declined to comment on the discrepancies between Harris’ taped testimony and the statements she made in court.
Nardoni had requested blanket immunity for her client, meaning she could never be charged with any crime in relations to the shooting. Prosecutors instead granted Harris “use immunity,” meaning her testimony at Peterson’s trial could not be used in furtherance of future criminal charges against her. But her two days on the stand could leave the district attorney’s office with buyer’s remorse.
Whenever prosecutors questioned Harris about the September interview, she responded that she couldn’t remember what she said during that discussion, couldn’t remember the events of the shooting or that she “wasn’t 100% truthful” with prosecutors in the past.
Under both direct questioning and cross-examination, she has not said what, if anything, she specifically lied about in the interview, only referring to the need to protect herself.
A visibly nervous Harris needed repeated breaks on the stand, often summoning her lawyer for advice. L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Kathy Ta appeared to grow annoyed with Harris, at times reminding her that, even with immunity, she could still be charged with perjury if she lied on the stand.
“It’s hard to remember these events,” Harris said at one point.
“It wasn’t so hard in September,” Ta replied, a clear edge to her voice.
Harris was unequivocal during her testimony on a few points: that she did not shoot Pete, that she hadn’t been paid a dime by Peterson’s team and that she had not been “compromised” between September and this week, rebutting an allegation Spiro made to a gossip website.
When asked why she sent the text message saying “Tory shot Meg” on the night of the attack, Harris said she did so in a “panic” and only assumed Peterson opened fire. She repeatedly said in court that she did not see him with a gun. Harris also said she didn’t remember sending text messages to Pete describing an assault committed by Peterson that night.
Initially, prosecutors had been allowed to play only portions of her recording to refresh her recollection on the stand, and Herriford told jurors they could not consider the tape as evidence.
But that changed after Mgdesyan made remarks during his cross-examination that suggested prosecutors had pressured Harris during the September interview. Bott then requested to play the whole recording to rebut the idea prosecutors acted improperly. Herriford agreed.
On tape, Harris’ memory is much more vivid.
“I don’t know if [Peterson] was hitting me with a closed fist or he was slapping me, but there was a physical altercation,” Harris said, adding she “became afraid for my life when he started pulling my hair and my neck really, really hard.”
Harris also clearly described Pete as having been shot and bleeding, according to the recording, and also confirmed she sent the text message blaming Peterson for the shooting.
On the tape, Harris also echoed Pete’s claim that Peterson had promised both women $1 million each the night of the shooting if they didn’t report it to police. Days later, Harris said on tape, Peterson also asked her if she needed money to invest in a business or a job after the shooting. She did not explicitly say Peterson tried to bribe her in exchange for her refusing to cooperate with authorities.
The prosecution is expected to finish its case Monday. Closing arguments in the trial could come as soon as Wednesday. It is unclear how, if at all, the Christmas holiday might affect jury deliberations.
Mgdesyan’s defense is expected to focus on shifting blame for the shooting to Harris, who tested positive for gunshot residue after the incident. A positive test for residue does not mean someone fired a gun, but Mgdesyan also says he has a witness who can identify Harris as the shooter.
Additionally, Peterson’s DNA was not found on the magazine inside the weapon used to shoot Pete, and DNA tests attempting to link Peterson to the gun were “inconclusive.” Police did not collect a DNA sample from Harris to match.
Although the judge’s decision to allow prosecutors to play the recorded interview has been celebrated as a victory by Pete’s massive fan base, legal experts said its effect on a jury is far from clear.
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who serves as a professor at Loyola Law School, said the jurors could choose to believe Harris was being truthful the first time and has since folded under pressure from an outside force. Levenson also said the jury’s interpretation of the demeanors of both Harris and the prosecutors on the tape could play a key role.
If they believe Bott and Ta were leading her in the taped interview, they could choose to take Harris’ testimony in court as true. But if they believe Harris was spontaneous and forthright on tape, as opposed to her constant pauses and deflections on the stand, they may take the tape as gospel instead.
“If the truth is she just sounds like she’s pouring out the information during this interview, then it’ll be easier for the prosecution to argue you should believe her before,” Levenson said. “Something like this, a hiccup like this, could equally cause reasonable doubt.
“They just need one juror to say I can’t convict someone of this serious crime when I’m getting two different versions,” she said. “She’s the key witness, and it would have been better for the prosecutors if she had stayed on point, but it’s not the end of the case if they had to play their prior statement.”