Free at Last
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas’ governor says he will commute the sentence of a woman convicted more than three decades ago of fatally shooting her husband, who had physically abused her. Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday announced his intent to make Willie Mae Harris immediately eligible for parole. Harris was convicted in 1985 of first-degree murder in the shooting death of her husband. Harris admitted to shooting her husband, but has said it was an accident related to self-defense.
Harris is legally blind, and the state Parole Board has recommended she receive clemency several times over the years. Charged with first-degree murder of her husband and offered a plea deal – 20 years – out in 13 for good behavior, Willie refused to admit to a crime she did not commit – a position she maintains today even after serving 34 years behind bars.
Mike Masterson, an award-winning journalist and friend has been a vocal activist for the release of Willie Mae Harris and his efforts have finally been rewarded. Portions of a recent Masterson column follow:
Undrea “Gem” Jones, a Dance To Be Free program instructor and returning citizen from the women’s McPherson/Hawkins incarceration units, recently wrote on social media that inmate Willie Mae Harris deserves clemency.
Here’s Jones’ poignant message: “I know the beautiful woman personally and I watched her go blind, heard her cries for help from medical officials when she still had sight in both her eyes. This went on for at least 12 years.
“Then it was myself and other inmates who took care of her necessities such as feeding her and guiding her to the bathroom and shower. It was a constant struggle with the Department of Corrections to get her anything to assist her. Yet this woman never lost her hope and she kept pressing on.
“What justice will be gained by letting Miss Willie Harris die in prison?”
The personable Jones asks a valid question. I’ve raised a voice on Miss Willie’s behalf, for one reason: It is clearly the merciful, decent and compassionate thing to do for a 72-year-old grandmother whose conviction (much like that of former inmate Belynda Goff of Green Forest) was riddled with inadequacies and uncalled witnesses. Plus, she has served more than enough time while suffering terrible personal agony behind bars.
This gentle lady insists, even all these years later, that she sincerely loved her late husband despite the enormous abuses he continually inflicted on her, and never intended to kill him during a heated argument in bed at their home in Bradley in 1985.
I can’t imagine life behind bars for years, losing sight, then having to rely on the compassion of other inmates simply to work through every day. I also can’t believe a man with the demonstrated integrity and empathy of our governor would continue to insist she remain in such a place until she dies.
While on the subject, I also wanted to share a copy of a letter to our governor dated Jan. 29. It was written on Willie’s behalf by financier John Logan of Blytheville. His sentiments likely express those of many Arkansas citizens.
“I read the article by Mike Masterson and was compelled to write you. I am appealing to you to grant her mercy and grant her clemency. She is one of the ones that’s fallen through the cracks of our system and needs help.
“The Parole Board has recommended five times that she be released from prison, and five times she was denied by Governor Huckabee and Governor Beebe. After hearing everything about her and the good she has done for others in prison, I feel that it is our duty to help this poor woman.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
“Please have mercy on Willie Mae Harris and grant her clemency. You will be blessed and the people of Arkansas will be too.”
Well said, John Logan, and thanks for reminding us that the Bard realized the divine nature of mercy.
This particular quote was enough to send me on a bit of research to see what other thoughtful folks over time have had to say about the nature of mercy. Here’s a bit of what I discovered that applies to all our lives together.
Abraham Lincoln, during a conversation with former colleague Joseph Gillespie in 1864, is reported to have said: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
This is not the only cause that Mike has taken on that has yielded positive results. Kudos go out to him, keep on fighting the good fight.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master’s journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 02/11/2020