Terry Harrington spent 25 years in jail for crime he didn't commit
Harrington recalls the prison experience with a string of "de" words: demoralizing, degrading, dehumanizing. He has stories of gang fights and riots and inmates throwing feces on guards. He says that by the end of his first week, two inmates had been killed, one of them "cut up and put in a laundry bag." Still in possession of his faith, Harrington went to church services. He soon quit when he saw the chaplain, also a prison guard, clutching a rifle, threatening to blow an inmate's head off. "This guy's going to teach us about morals and forgiveness?" says Harrington. "No, thanks."
Early into his sentence, Harrington developed Crohn's disease -- caused by the stress, he figures -- a gastrointestinal disorder that made him feel as though his insides were burning. His survival instincts again kicked in and he finagled a job in the kitchen just to make sure he had access to mild food. His biggest fear, he says, was dying in prison. He stayed alive in part by filing a series of appeals against his conviction. One by one, they were dismissed by the courts, but the mere possibility of justice kept him going.
Sports helped sustain him, too. Wearing pads donated by the Iowa State football program, Harrington was the star of the prison football team. He played on the basketball team, averaging, by his own reckoning, 44 points a game. ("Couldn't no one stop me!") Before the Crohn's became unbearable, he ran on a 4x400 relay team. Sports were therapeutic, a way to alchemize anger into something more productive. Sports were a way to climb the social hierarchy in the prison yard. Sports were also lucrative. Wagering on free-throw shooting contests, games of around-the-world and other tests of athletic skill, Harrington claims he made thousands of dollars over the years.
Back in his cell, he tracked time with the sports calendar. He spent innumerable hours watching Big Ten basketball games. Even today, he can recall the lineage of the conference's best players, from his old Omaha nemesis Mike McGee (Michigan) to Magic Johnson (Michigan State) to Isiah Thomas (Indiana) to Glen Rice (Michigan) and Glenn Robinson (Purdue). He watched football, too, but it came with acute pain. "I see all those guys out there playing and I'm thinking, 'I'm as good as that!'" he says "Well, maybe I was, and maybe I wasn't, but I never even got the chance."
It was full-time work suppressing his anger. Harrington felt as though he'd been kidnapped. Here he was, in the prime years of his life, and he was locked up. He didn't see his friends. Shortly before his sentencing, Harrington's girlfriend got pregnant. The first time he saw his daughter it was through Plexiglas. Through the years, she would come to Fort Madison and he'd help her with homework in the visiting room. Birthday after birthday, Christmas after Christmas, he celebrated, best he could, behind bars. All for a crime he steadfastly maintained he did not commit.
Sometimes he couldn't suppress the rage. In Harrington's 16th year in jail, another inmate taunted him and made vague threats. Terry might have stayed away. With T.J., the guy had no chance. When Harrington was certain other inmates were watching he grabbed his knife and sunk it into the bully's back. When he was sent off to "lock-up," solitary confinement, he barely flinched. Solitary? I'd rather be alone anyway. "It's like, why follow the rules if I'm in here for life anyway?"
Carrying her supplies in a milk crate, Anne Danaher endured a symphony of whistles, catcalls and unprintable taunts as she walked through the yard of Fort Madison. You could hardly conceive of a less likely figure to work at the joint. A slight, pleasant looking 35-year-old woman, Danaher spoke in such a gentle Midwestern lilt that listeners needed to lean in to hear her. But there Danaher was, the prison barber, dutifully standing before her chair, shearing inmates from "lock-up." They sat before her, cuffed and in shackles. Mirrors were forbidden -- contraband that could be used as weapons -- so she used a sheet of polished stainless steel to check her handiwork.
At five bucks a head, the money was nice. But mostly, working at Fort Madison fed something deep inside Danaher. She had grown up in Kansas City, the eighth of 16 siblings, and had always identified with the underdog. Even in high school debate class, she was the one arguing against the death penalty. In the early 90s, she was living in Iowa near a brother who owned an oil brokerage company. When the job at Fort Madison came open in 1993, she was happy to take it. "I just wanted to give them some dignity for a few minutes," she says. She took her work seriously. When she realized how many inmates were African-American, she ventured to an inner-city Kansas City barber shop to learn how to performs fades and lines.
During one of her first shifts she saw a family emerge from a car with Nebraska license plates. "You sure came a long way," she said.
"Eight hours," a woman responded. "Been doing it for years."
"Well," Danaher said, "I hope the person you're visiting gets out soon."
Not likely, the woman explained. "He's in for life without parole. And he was framed."
Danaher thought little of it. More than a few prisoners had proclaimed their innocence and offered conspiracy theories. But a few days later Danaher cut Harrington's hair. When he mentioned that he was from Nebraska, Danaher stopped cutting. "I think I met your mom." she said. "She said it was all suspicious." As Danaher went back to work, Harrington calmly and meticulously recounted the details of his case, the inconsistencies, his alibi, his failed appeals, and the role of race. "To this day I don't know what it was," says Danaher. "But I knew he was telling the truth and he had exhausted his remedies by this point. [God] was saying, He has no voice. You have to be his voice. You have to bring him back to life."
In her off-hours Danaher familiarized herself with Harrington's case and began poking around. This was the mid-1990s, the infancy of the Web, so much of her work was done using phone, fax and regular mail. Combing the white pages, Danaher assembled a phone directory of everyone attached to the case. She went to the local library and read about the case on microfilm. Danaher had no legal training, but she quickly sensed that her instincts about Harrington and his case had been accurate. Early on, for instance, she learned that his first lawyer had not been licensed to practice in Iowa. Something wasn't right.
Soon, advocating for Harrington became a full-on obsession. She quit her prison job so she could devote all her time to the case, moving back to Kansas City, where one of her brothers was an attorney, so she could have access to a law library. She requested records, read thousands of pages of transcripts, filed post-conviction papers, badgered legislators for meetings, and wrote letter after letter to the editor of the Council Bluffs newspaper, the Daily Nonpareil. Published letters by Anne Danaher, Kansas, Mo. Carried headlines like: "Harrington should be allowed 'new' life," "Handling of murder case is unacceptable," "Harrington lost best years of his life," and "Courts, police deny people the truth."
Figuring she had nothing to lose, Danaher wrote to Barry Scheck, head of the Manhattan-based Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA testing results to exonerate falsely convicted inmates. When Danaher explained that there was no physical evidence used to convict Harrington, Scheck responded that there was, unfortunately, little he could do to help. In 1998, Gerry Spence, the flamboyant Wyoming lawyer, passed through Kansas City on a book tour. Danaher intercepted him at a radio station and told him about Harrington. She recalls Spence playfully telling her that if she got him out of jail, he'd "walk it across the finish line" and handle the civil lawsuit. "If I had known more I probably would have been more discouraged by the doors that kept shutting," she says. "But I was so naive, so idealistic. I just wanted to be sure something like this never happened to anyone else."
Danaher set out to dismantle the prosecutors' case brick by brick. The first was discrediting their witnesses. When she located Kevin Hughes in a Nebraska jail and asked about his testimony, she was surprised by his response. He recanted his entire testimony, claiming he'd lied on the stand and had been coached by the prosecution. He never saw Harrington that night. He'd lied to collect $5,000 in reward money and also because he was promised that the charges against him would be dropped after he agreed to testify against Harrington.
Danaher then went to other witnesses who'd backed Hughes. They, too, recanted their statements. After Danaher ventured to the inner city of Omaha to find Clyde Jacobs, he broke down in tears and said he'd been stealing cars with Hughes and he, too, implicated Harrington to avoid being prosecuted. Candace Pride, who was dating Hughes at the time, said in 2000, "I just said what Kevin told me to say." Based on that, Danaher asked Iowa governor Tom Vilsack for clemency. Vilsack, currently the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, told her that he wasn't going to get involved.
Harrington wasn't entirely sure what to make of this Erin Brockovich of the Heartland, this tenacious woman who showed more interest in his case than anyone else had. But if she were willing to devote Lord-knows-how-many hours to his case, he was happy to accept her as a teammate. Danaher supported herself delivering Hallmark cards, working as a night nurse for the elderly and even working at Kansas City Chiefs games. But if anyone asked what she did, well, she was working to get a man his justice.
Around the same time that witnesses began recanting, Danaher contacted Lawrence Farwell, an Iowa researcher developing a technology he called "brain fingerprinting." Farwell theorized that information stored in a subject's brain can be accessed by measuring brain wave responses to relevant words or pictures flashed on a computer screen. When Farwell tried his technology on Harrington, his brain did not react to critical details of the crime. In 2000, 60 Minutes prepared a segment on brain fingerprinting and Farwell chose Harrington for his demonstration. Using brain fingerprinting, Farwell was not only convinced that Harrington was innocent, but also that Kevin Hughes had lied on the stand.
Hoping that the show's producers would devote less time to the technology and more time to the specifics of Harrington's saga, Danaher contacted the Council Bluffs police department. Under the guise that she was "researching police deaths in the Midwest," she requested the entire police file from the Schweer murder. The clerk, she recalls, said, "It's a closed case and two guys are locked up, but if you pay for it, I'll send the files." Danaher didn't find a smoking gun; she uncovered a smoldering gun with fresh fingerprints.
No sooner had she sent a money order for $91, than a series of folders arrived. Danaher identified at least eight police reports that had never been released to Harrington and his attorneys. One of them contained a note that Schweer had written to the dealership owner, a few days before the murder, asking him to install floodlights after he'd chased off a man carrying a shotgun, accompanied by a dog -- suggested the killer had already been in the neighborhood. Another report mentioned a witness who had seen a white male running from the scene of the crime carrying a shotgun, trailing his dog. Stunned, Danaher kept reading.
Though the prosecution had denied under oath there were other suspects aside from Harrington, this was, demonstrably, a lie. Another report revealed that early in the investigation, they had identified Charles Gates, who was 48 at the time, lived with a dog and was also a suspect in a 1963 murder that was never solved. A witness at a nearby service station told officers he'd seen a man walking a dog in the area; from a photograph he identified that man as Gates. Another report noted that Gates was administered a polygraph test and was "not truthful in his denial of owning a shotgun or having shot John Schweer."
Still another report indicates that the Council Bluffs police took the unusual step of interviewing a local astrologer and providing her with the birthday of Gates -- identified as "our suspect in this matter" -- and asked her to create an astrological chart. None of this had ever been revealed to Harrington. (Under oath, no police source could recall why Gates was dropped as a suspect.)
It was a classic "Brady violation," the suppression of evidence that is favorable to the defendant and relevant to the issue of guilt. Had Harrington and his lawyers known of Gates, they surely would have crafted their defense differently. They also likely would have noted that Gates' brother-in-law was, at the time, Council Bluff's fire captain, a plausible reason why Gates was never pursued more aggressively. "It was a classic cover-up," says Harrington. "And they almost got away with it. The only thing was they were counting on me disappearing and not putting up a fight for all those years."
It took years of enduring delays and negotiating bureaucratic morass, but in early 2003, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled 5-1 to overturn Harrington's conviction, stating that he was entitled to a new trial, given the prosecutorial misconduct, the suppressed evidence and recanted testimony. That April, Vilsack granted Harrington a reprieve. He walked out of prison, along with Curtis McGhee.
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