Elderly, blind Arkansas inmate Willie Mae Harris to be freed after 34 years

Elderly, blind Arkansas inmate Willie Mae Harris granted clemency after 34 years

WRIGHTSVILLE, Ark. — Like most inmates, Willie Mae Harris fears contracting the coronavirus in the close quarters of state prison.

Harris’ fears are more urgent than some. The 72-year-old, blind Arkansas woman is biding her time in the Wrightsville Women’s Facility near Little Rock as she awaits her freedom.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March granted her something she has been seeking since 1998 – executive clemency in the 1985 murder of her abusive husband, Clyde Harris.

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Willie Harris was sentenced Nov. 12, 1985, to 140 years in prison, state records show. In the 34 years she’s spent behind bars, she’s lost her eyesight and her mother, according to The Appeal, which has followed her case.

It was a fairly clinical March 4 announcement from Hutchinson’s office that cleared the way for Harris’ release. Harris’ commutation was listed among a second inmate’s sentence commutation, two firearm rights restorations and 14 pardons.

“The governor has given notice of his intent to commute the sentence of Willie Mae Harris, who was convicted in Lafayette County in 1985 for the above offenses, from life in the Department of Correction to making her immediately parole eligible,” Hutchinson’s announcement read. “There are no law enforcement objections to the application.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to reporters April 10, 2019, in his office in Little Rock, Ark.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to reporters April 10, 2019, in his office in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

In a second statement, Hutchinson elaborated on his decision.

“She had been a victim of domestic violence for a long period of time, (and) there was evidence of that. She proclaimed her innocence, but for a lot of reasons, I granted clemency to Willie Mae Harris,” Hutchinson said, according to the Arkansas Times.

Lee Eaton, Harris’ appellate attorney, said the reaction of his client was far more dramatic – she “shrieked with excitement,” The Appeal reported.

“I’m just so happy that she will get to go home and build a relationship with her family, a big wonderful family,” Eaton said.

Before she could be released, however, there was one more hurdle to her freedom – the Arkansas Parole Board. Harris, who has spent nearly half her life in prison, went before the board May 5, records show.

The board approved her release nine days later, according to KATV in Little Rock. The news station reported that Harris’ release is pending the approval of a residential plan, which is one of the conditions of her parole.

Arkansas and Texas officials have 45 days from the date of the board’s decision to finalize those plans, Eaton told The Appeal, which reported that the inmate plans to move to Texas to live with her two daughters. Silvia Harris Wilkins was 14 when her mother went to prison; Mellowne Harris was 5.

“You just don’t understand the joy that I’m feeling right now,” Wilkins told The Appeal. “My biggest fear was burying my mother in prison. Just to know that I don’t have to do that and she’s coming home is such a relief.”

‘In fear of her life’

Willie Harris was 37 years old the early morning of Jan. 30, 1985, when she shot her husband during an argument in their bedroom. Court records from Harris’ appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court indicate that Clyde Harris accused his wife of giving him a sexually transmitted disease and tried to make her have anal sex.

“He then started calling her names and slung her around,” the court documents say. “(Willie) Harris reached in her purse, which was on the floor beside the bed, and pulled out a loaded .25 caliber automatic pistol.

“She said she kept the gun beside the bed because Clyde’s threats had frightened her, and he kept two loaded rifles in the corner of the bedroom and a loaded pistol under the mattress. She said she knelt over Clyde, who was lying down, hit him with the gun, and the gun fired.”

Clyde Harris died facedown on the bed, the covers pulled over him, the documents say.

Willie Harris has always maintained that the shooting was accidental. According to The Appeal, she rejected a deal in which prosecutors offered her a 20-year sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to first-degree murder.

She testified at her November 1985 trial that she did not intend to kill Clyde Harris.

“When I lie my head down, my husband was threatening to kill me,” she testified, according to The Appeal. “And I don’t really know what happened. You all believe me, I did not shoot my husband.”

Guards patrol a cell block at the Arkansas Department of Correction's Cummins Unit near Varner, Ark., in an August 2009 photo.
Guards patrol a cell block at the Arkansas Department of Correction's Cummins Unit near Varner, Ark., in an August 2009 photo. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Prosecutors argued, however, that Clyde Harris’ death was “nothing but cold-blooded murder.” Willie Harris was found guilty after a one-day trial.

Court records show the state Supreme Court also believed Willie Harris shot and killed her husband intentionally. The court wrote in her appeal denial that the state’s evidence contradicted her story of how her husband got shot.

The evidence indicated the gun did not discharge next to Clyde Harris’ skin, as it would have if it had gone off when she struck him with it, the court found. A firearms examiner also testified that he could not, during testing of the .25-caliber pistol, recreate an accidental discharge.

The court said Clyde Harris had no bruises on his body consistent with being hit with a handgun and that Willie Harris contradicted herself multiple times when telling her story to authorities and to jurors.

“Harris stated first that she was in fear of her life and she kept the gun beside her bed because of her fear,” the documents say. “Later she stated she was not in fear of her life. She was angry at the time she pulled the gun out of her purse.

“Harris also contradicted herself about the reason she and her husband reconciled. They were separated and reconciled about 18 days prior to the shooting. In her statement to the police, Harris stated the couple decided to get back together; however, she stated at trial she went back to Clyde because he threatened suicide.”

‘She never stopped loving him’

The Appeal reported that it was ultimately his threats of suicide that prompted Willie Harris to return to her husband, whom she loved despite his abuse. She had taken the couple’s two daughters in July 1984 and moved them to Shreveport, Louisiana, to live with her mother.

Six months later and just 18 days before the murder, she and the girls returned to Arkansas. In court, Willie Harris testified that her husband was “like an insane person” in the final days of his life.

“Every night he would tell me that, ‘I’m going to kill you, get rid of you, you ain’t doing me no good,’ things of that sort,” she told the jury, according to The Appeal. “I didn’t put the gun there to kill. I put it there because Clyde had just frightened me.”

The night of Jan. 29, 1985, Willie, Clyde and the girls watched television together. It was after the children were in bed that the argument began.

When Clyde Harris pushed her, Willie Harris testified, she grabbed the pistol from her purse. She told jurors she did not remember how many times she struck him with the weapon before the gun went off, the bullet hitting him through the covers.

“Willie Mae, you shot me,” he said.

Wilkins, the couple’s older daughter, told The Appeal it was around 2 a.m. Jan. 30 when she heard the gunshot and then her mother calling her name. When the teen ran to her parents’ room, Willie Harris told the girl she shot her father by mistake.

Clyde Harris died before help could arrive.

At trial, Eaton said, Willie Harris’ defense lawyer failed to bring up evidence of the prior abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. A pretrial psychological evaluation obtained by The Appeal indicated the abuse began two years after the Harrises were married.

Clyde Harris once hit his wife hard enough to burst her eardrum, the report said. Wilkins told authorities she once saw her father break her mother’s hand with a steel pipe.

The defense failed to obtain Willie Harris’ medical records, which documented her injuries, Eaton said. They also failed to call multiple witnesses willing to testify about the abuse they witnessed – including her daughter, Wilkins.

Wilkins told The Appeal the lawyer said she was too young to testify.

“I was like, ‘It’s not right. Y’all don’t know what she went through,’” Wilkins said. “I should’ve had a chance to defend her.”

Last month’s parole board recommendation was Willie Harris’ sixth recommendation for release. Five previous parole boards have suggested her release, with two noting her status as a victim of domestic abuse.

Other boards noted that Harris has taught hundreds of her fellow inmates how to read over the years, as well as her strong family ties outside of prison, The Appeal reported.

Each of the five times she was previously recommended for parole, the governor at the time denied relief. That included Hutchinson, who denied her last petition in 2015, the year he took office.

It is unclear what made the governor change his mind since then.

“She has seriously paid, I think, for her crime, whatever it was,” Eaton told The Appeal. “She has tremendous remorse for what she did, for what she caused to happen.

“Every time Clyde comes up, she tears up. She would tell you today that she loves him, and she never stopped loving him.”

Willie Mae Harris is pictured in an undated Arkansas Department of Correction photo. Harris, now 72 and blind, has been approved for parole after serving 34 years of a 140-year sentence for the 1985 murder of her abusive husband.
Willie Mae Harris is pictured in an undated Arkansas Department of Correction photo. Harris, now 72 and blind, has been approved for parole after serving 34 years of a 140-year sentence for the 1985 murder of her abusive husband. (Arkansas Department of Correction)