Wrongfully Convicted Man Dies in Prison While Arguing His Case
One man who said he was innocent and the courts agreed he should get another trial to prove his innocence because of serious irregularities from his original trial died in prison Nov. 5.
James Harris had been imprisoned for 27 years for a murder he claims he never committed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed to vacate his conviction for first degree murder because the jury that convicted him unconstitutionally excluded African Americans. His trial was currently pending in the Cook County Criminal Court until his death.
“Well, all I can tell you is that I felt he was innocent and that is what others believed as well and he died,” said Mark Clements, who is with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “I feel it’s a shame he died absent justice.”
Clements, who himself was tortured into making a confession to a crime he never committed and served over 20 years in prison until he was proven innocent, has advocated for many men wrongfully convicted but still sit behind bars because they don’t have the money to buy the lawyers to prove their innocence.
In this case, Harris wanted to represent himself, and that was a problem, according to Clements.
The following account of Harris’s conviction is detailed by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR).
On Feb. 10, 1983, an armed robbery took place near 69th and State St. Jesse James Sr., owner of Jesse’s Lounge and Liquors, was shot and died from a head wound in the hospital. His employee Theresa Woods received a minor injury to her shoulder and was the sole witness who helped convict Harris of the murder.
Harris was found guilty of attempted murder, attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery and was sentenced to death the next year. But in 2003 Gov. George Ryan issued a moratorium that stopped the death penalty in this state, and gave Harris and all others on death row life without parole.
Harris’ prosecution was marred, like many, by inconsistencies with witnesses who changed their testimony and a gung-ho team of Chicago prosecutors and police detectives out to prove they were solving murders and locking up the bad guys.
Woods – the sole witness – said an armed man told them to get into Harris’s car and demanded $300 and told the people in the car to return to the tavern to get the money. The witness who was a victim in the robbery denied telling detectives she had seen a car crash, didn’t remember telling detectives that she had seen a conversation between Harris and the assailant and had told Dr. Marion Chung at Billings Hospital that she had been hit by a bullet as she was running away and fell to the ground which was later contradicted.
The witness gave conflicting reports about the height of Harris, saying he was 5’5, yet he is 5’11, and that he had a large afro, while in fact he wore his hair in corn rolls. She also said Harris stood directly over her and shot her while she was on the ground, but earlier she had said she had been running when she was shot. There were no fingerprints taken and the police handled both the gun and the bullets. His defense further stated that police who accused him of using the weapon to kill the tavern owner were not properly cross-examined in court.
State prosecutor Dan Franks made repeated attempts to have other witnesses change testimony to prove Harris was the killer. One doctor involved in the case was told she would not be called as a witness to Theresa Woods’s statement because her reports were “totally opposite” to Woods testimony and would undermine her testimony. The prosecution lied and told the court Dr. Chung was out of town and could not testify. However, Dr. Chung testified on day two of the trial, and when subpoenaed by the state attorney’s office, it was discovered that she was not out of town.
According to the Chicago Alliance, Harris should have been able to depose of the one witness Woods based on giving incorrect information about his height, so she would not have been able to change her version of events and deny what she said at the actual trial. This would have happened had the proposed reforms been applied to this case after Gov. Ryan said too many cases like this filled with holes and lies were used to sentence people to death, NAARPR stated.
“Now under the new law, the line-up procedure used, with just the one witness as well, is illegal,” the Center stated.
After the trial was finished, and just before the jury went into deliberation, the prosecutor decided to drop the failed-robbery charge and charge Harris with attempted armed robbery, despite his money being accounted for. He was then found guilty of a crime without any chance to defend himself against the crime, the Center stated.
Harris appealed his case and a new sentence hearing was granted because of unreliable evidence used to sentence him to death. However, Judge Hibbler re-sentenced Harris to death in 1992, the Center stated.
“(Theresa Woods) testimony was critical for establishing death penalty eligibility,” the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression wrote. “So many inconsistencies, Woods story becomes impossible to believe.”
To convict the prosecution must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. This case was filled with holes from the witness, and yet the jury still convicted Harris based solely on this one witness account.
The fact that there was an all-white jury to convict an African-American male made the trial that found Harris guilty even more dubious, and the reason a new trial was ordered.
Harris was one of five children and grew up in a housing project on the South Side, the Center stated. His father was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis of the liver when Harris was 12. Prior to his father’s death, the police had been called numerous times due to his father physically abusing his mother. His mother worked two jobs to support them and he was raised mostly by his 14-year-old sister.
Harris, 64, could not use DNA to exonerate himself because there was none taken. The line-up procedure used at his arrest is now considered illegal under the Obama-Cullerton reforms to the death system in Illinois.
Harris was considered a great artist before he entered prison and suffered from chronic diabetes, with his sight fading due to lack of proper diet and correct medical procedures.
While Harris never had his day in court to prove his innocence, judging by the facts of the case he should have been freed a long time ago. Unfortunately, it was his death that finally set him free from a corrupt system that should have never imprisoned him in the first place.