In the pre-dawn hours of June 14, 1984, the body of Jimmie Lee Turner, an auto mechanic, was found dead near his garage in Tacoma, Washington. He had been shot twice.
Benjamin Harris, 37, was a well-known resident who, clad in a suit and tie, hung out in a coffee shop frequented by politicians and lawyers. He styled himself a police informant and bragged about his connections to influential people.
After Turner’s murder, Harris told a police detective that he would help them solve the case.
As police investigated, a man who knew both Harris and Turner implicated Gregory Bonds and Harris in the murder. Harris told police that Bonds had confessed to the killing.
On July 27, 1984, Bonds was charged with murder and a couple of weeks later, police took Harris to a motel where they interrogated him and asked him to take two polygraph examinations. On August 10, 1984, Harris was charged with the murder. The police said he had contracted with Bonds to kill Turner.
At trial, just a few weeks later, Harris’s lawyer, Murray Anderson, convinced Harris to testify that he and Bonds both shot Turner. The theory was that since the charge alleged that Harris paid Bonds to commit the murder, testimony that he actually participated in the murder would result in an acquittal.
The strategy, later described by Harris’s appellate lawyer as “about as stupid as it can get,” did not work.
Harris was convicted of aggravated first degree murder on October 29, 1984 and sentenced to death.
Bonds was tried separately and acquitted.
The Washington Supreme Court upheld Harris’s conviction and death sentence on October 2, 1986.
His lawyers filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus and on March 2, 1994, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan overturned the conviction and death sentence. Bryan ruled that Harris’s trial lawyer had provided an inadequate defense.
The court found that Anderson had spent less than two hours talking to Harris and only 12 other hours preparing for trial. He was assisted by a lawyer six months out of law school. Of 32 people listed in police reports as having knowledge relating to the murder—19 of whom testified—Anderson interviewed just three.
After the conviction, forensic evidence that was not brought up at trial showed that only one person fired the murder weapon, even though Harris had testified that after Bonds shot Turner, Bonds handed the gun to Harris who also shot Turner.
Bryan found that Anderson had disparaged Harris to the jury. “The one person in the courtroom who is professionally obligated to display a sense of loyalty and advocacy has described Harris in such a way that left him with little or no credibility, no humanity and no means to be identified as a peer of the jury,” Bryan ruled.
In the years after the Washington Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence, a team of lawyers had fought to vacate the death sentence on the grounds that Harris was mentally ill. The prosecution had argued that Harris was sane.
After the new trial was ordered, the prosecution had little evidence left for a retrial. Key witnesses were either dead, in prison for other murders, or unwilling to testify. On May 27, 1997, the charge was dismissed.
Unable to get a conviction, the state then attempted to get Harris civilly committed as dangerously mentally ill.
On July 16, 1997, Pierce County jurors found Harris mentally ill, but recommended he be treated in a less restrictive setting. He was then placed in a program to help him learn living skills in preparation for a transition to freedom.
Ultimately, Harris was released from the transitional facility and died in 2008.
– Maurice Possley