In the early morning hours of July 22, 1977, 56-year-old John Schweer, a retired police captain working as a security guard at a car dealership in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was murdered.
There were several suspects, but all were abandoned in September 1977 after police picked up Kevin Hughes, a friend of 17-year-old Terry Harrington, in an investigation of a stolen car ring.
During the police interrogation, Hughes gave numerous false statements. Eventually, after being coached by detectives and promised a $5,000 reward and dismissal of pending charges against him, he claimed that he, Harrington, and 17-year-old Curtis McGhee
had attempted to steal a car on the night of the murder, and when the guard came to investigate, Harrington shot him once with a shotgun.
Harrington and McGhee were arrested in November 1977 and charged with murder. They went on trial separately in Pottawattamie County District Court. McGhee was convicted by a jury in June 1978 based on the testimony of Hughes as well as three jail inmates who said that McGhee had admitted participating in the murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Harrington went on trial a month later. Hughes and several other witnesses testified that Harrington had been the shooter or that they had seen Harrington’s car in the area that night. Although Harrington presented an alibi—he had been at a concert that night and had spoken with his former football coach—the prosecution’s witnesses rebutted his alibi and claimed the shooting occurred after the concert. The prosecution denied under oath that there were any other suspects. In addition, a crime lab analyst said that he had found microscopic evidence of gunshot residue on a jacket seized from Harrington’s home.
In August 1978, an all-white jury convicted Harrington of first-degree murder and he also was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In 1993, Anne Danaher, a barber who cut inmates’ hair at the prison in Fort Madison, Iowa, befriended Harrington and his family and came to believe in Harrington’s innocence.
In 1999, Danaher obtained the Council Bluffs police file on Harrington’s case and discovered it contained a number of police reports that had never been turned over to the defense, including one stating that a witness saw a white male with his dog running from the scene, and other clear evidence that police had at one time suspected this man, who was known to carry a shotgun on his dog walks.
Danaher enlisted the help of Mary Kennedy, a lawyer from Waterloo, Iowa, who tracked down numerous witnesses who recanted, including Hughes, who admitted that he had never seen Harrington the night Schweer was murdered. Hughes also said the prosecution had coached him and promised to drop other charges against him if he testified. He said he lied on the stand to collect the $5,000 reward money. The witnesses who had backed Hughes also recanted.
In April 2003, the Iowa Supreme Court granted Harrington a new trial and he was released, pending a retrial.
McGhee had also filed a motion for a new trial, but, on October 24 2003, he accepted a deal with the prosecution and entered an “Alford plea” to second-degree murder, which allowed him to plead guilty but nonetheless continue to maintain his innocence. He received a sentence of time already served, and was released on that day.
In October 2003, the prosecution announced that they would not seek to retry Harrington and dismissed the case, although they stated that they still believed he committed the crime.
McGhee and Harrington filed suit against the county for misconduct by the prosecutor and the police and won a large judgment. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, but ultimately the case was settled before the high court issued an opinion. Harrington received $7 million and McGhee received $5 million. In 2012, Danaher alleged Harrington had broken a promise to share any compensation with her if his case was dismissed.
In 2009, while working on the civil case that was pending against the city of Council Bluffs and two police officers, McGhee’s civil attorney, Stephen Davis, obtained a copy of the transcript of the hearing at which McGhee entered his “Alford plea.” Davis discovered that the prosecution had knowingly misled McGhee and the judge about the prosecution’s evidence.
Specifically, the prosecutor told the court that Hughes was ready to testify against McGhee at a retrial despite the fact the prosecutor knew that Hughes had said just the day before that he would not testify against McGhee.
Davis filed a motion to vacate McGhee’s Alford guilty plea on the ground of prosecutorial misconduct. The motion was granted on January 7, 2011 and the case against McGhee was dismissed.
The lawsuit against the city of Council Bluffs and the police officers went to trial in 2012, but a mistrial was declared when the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict. In October 2013, on the eve of a second trial, the parties settled the claims for $6.2 million to be split evenly between Harrington and McGhee.
- Stephanie Denzel and Maurice Possley