Terry Harrington spent 25 years in jail for crime he didn't commit
Harrington's hair was thinner, his belly thicker. He had grayed a bit and wore glasses. But at 43, he still looked like an athlete. He wore a jersey from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, a gift from Danaher. The racial overtones were lost on only the densest of observers. The uniform number, 25, represented the number of years he'd been incarcerated. He held a press conference, his gratitude and joy trumping anger and bitterness. Reporters asked what he was going to do now. "I'm going to Disneyland!" he blurted out before adding: "Right now, I am so relieved. I can breathe normal. I may go home and do a Rip Van Winkle. I hope I don't, you know, because there's so much I've missed out on already."
In the Hollywood version of the story, the triumphant music kicks in right about now and the credits start rolling. Real life seldom breaks so neatly. Though Harrington was now out of jail, there was still the possibility that he could be retried. In what appeared to be an effort to save face, the prosecutors offered Harrington and McGhee a deal: they'd drop the charges in exchange for time served. McGhee took it, happy simply for some measure of closure, and even agreed to testify against Harrington if asked. When Harrington was offered a similar deal, he laughed. He even turned down a pardon. "A pardon would have forgiven me," he says shaking his head. "Forgiven me? I didn't do anything!"
By the end of the year, a judge had dismissed the case. After Harrington's release, Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber held a press conference and explained that, reluctantly, he would not retry Harrington. Memories had faded. Witnesses after witness had recanted and disavowed their testimony. (Kevin Hughes died in 2009.) There wasn't enough admissible evidence to sustain another conviction. But then Wilber -- who was in elementary school when John Schweer was murdered -- added: "I have no doubt that Terry Harrington committed the murder of John Schweer in 1977 [and] the jury made the right decision." Harrington was enraged. He was still going to bear the stigma of a murderer. (Wilber did not respond to messages seeking comment.)
Released inmates often struggle to re-enter society and put their lives back together. Socially, Harrington made a remarkably smooth transition. He moved to Omaha and reconnected with friends and family, including his daughter, Nicole, by then a graduate student in Minneapolis. He re-enrolled in community college. He caught up on movies and music and technology. He joined a church and became more religious, the personalized license plate on his maroon truck reading: TRI GOD. He credits the alter ego. "It was almost like Terry never went to jail and never accepted jail -- T.J. did.," he says. "So Terry was always on the outside."
But there was a biting reality: a quarter century behind bars had deprived him of an education and work experience. The only jobs he could find were menial. He drove a garbage truck and worked seasonally for UPS and removed lead for the EPA. Whereas paroled prisoners, deemed to have repaid their debt to society, have a structure and network that oversee their reintegration, Harrington was left to his own devices. "It was, OK, you're free. You can get a driver's license, do whatever. You're not our problem any more."
Now that Harrington and Danaher were no longer bound by a fight for justice, suddenly there wasn't much else uniting them. She felt hurt, however, when Harrington returned to his old environment, declining an invitation to start a new life near her in Kansas City. He, in turn, felt hurt when, to his mind, she began taking too much credit for his freedom. Upon his 2003 release, Harrington told a Des Moines reporter, "I think God put [Annie] in my life to be the vessel through which I worked." Now he's more tempered, "She did great work for me, but so did a lot of good lawyers"
When you're wrongfully deprived of a quarter-century of freedom, it stands to reason that you're entitled to some compensation. Both Harrington and McGhee sued the local prosecutors and the Council Bluffs police force under a federal civil rights law. Harrington was cautious about choosing his lawyers. "I didn't want white lawyers getting me out and then bringing in black lawyers -- people said 'Get Johnnie Cochran!' -- to get the money." He settled on the law firm of ... Gerry Spence.
Harrington and Curtis McGhee sued Pottawattamie County and the case against the prosecutors went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The legal issue: Harrington was attempting to sue the prosecutors personally for their misconduct. The defense held that, even if the men were framed, there is prosecutorial immunity, shielding prosecutors from personal liability. On the one hand, it's intuitive: if you frame a man for a murder he did not commit, you ought to shoulder responsibility. On the other hand, if prosecutors could be held personally liable it would have a chilling effect on pursuing "borderline" cases and flood the courts with cases filed by convicted inmates against district attorneys. Besides, as the prosecution put it in a brief, there is "no freestanding constitutional right not to be framed." (Harrington lawyer's disagreed: "The Constitution is offended," they wrote in their brief, "when investigators fabricate evidence ... to frame innocent citizens.")
Harrington traveled to Washington last November, as his lawyers argued his case before the highest court in the land. Paul Clement, a star in the legal community and the Solicitor General under George W. Bush, took the case pro bono to argue on Harrington's behalf. Harrington sat in the gallery as his saga was relayed before the highest court in the land. In the days after the oral arguments, however, the sides reached a settlement. Pottawattamie County would pay Harrington and McGhee $12 million. (Harrington's share was $7.03 million, because he had a child and McGhee did not.)
For Harrington, it was bittersweet. Even after paying the attorneys, it was a lot of money. But he'd also filed the lawsuit in hopes of establishing precedent, making it harder for prosecutors to put other citizens in that position. The settlement rendered the case moot. There would be no Supreme Court decision. And while the size and circumstances of the settlement were massive, the agreement contained a clause expressly stating that there is "no admission of wrongdoing by the county." The settlement also called for Harrington to drop a defamation suit he'd filed against Wilber. Harrington pre-empts the question: "Did I do the right thing [in settling]?" He pauses for a beat. "I still don't know."
A few years ago, Terrence Mackey, Harrington's little league football teammate in the 70s, encouraged his old friend to help coach kids at the Boys and Girls club in North Omaha. Now an Omaha youth parole officer, Mackey figured it would be a good idea to involve Harrington in the community. "I also remember that he knew football." The club director, Dave Felici, was all for it, provided Harrington passed the background check, which he did. "There was one mother who was concerned, thinking, Terry had been in jail because he murdered someone," says Felici. "We explained the situation and by the end of the season she thought he was great."
Alongside with the teams' offensive coordinator, Abdul Muhammad, who once played wingback for Nebraska, Harrington ran methodical practices and wasn't shy about dispensing discipline. He was happy to stay late, offering tutorials on, say, the finer points of leverage. But most of his teaching had little to do with football itself. There were lessons and sermons about focus and accountability and hard work. Felici says that he was particularly impressed by Harrington's devotion to the least talented kids. "A team's a team," Harrington says flatly. "It's not a star and a bunch of other kids."
When Harrington coaches, he recalls his own experiences as a teenager. He thinks he had it right putting education ahead of football. "It's all about getting to college," he says. "Football without academics is like fool's gold." He points to Thunder Collins, a former Nebraska running back now serving a life sentence for a murder. Harrington has been known to suspend kids from practice who are underachieving in school, even when their parents have allowed them to play. He also remembers his disastrous senior year of high school, how one lapse changed the entire trajectory of his life. "I don't know how many times these kids have heard me say, 'You gotta stay focused. We can't afford to lose you and you can't afford to lose yourself.'"
By the end of his first season, Harrington had ingratiated himself, but rumors and half-truths about Coach Terry's backstory swirled. Harrington asked Felici if he could address his past. Sure, said Felici. On a trip back from a road game, Harrington screened his 60 Minutes episode on the bus' DVD player. They sat in silence. "These are kids who might be stopped by the police or get in trouble with teachers," says Felici. "The point isn't that everyone is innocent. It's that regardless of what happened you deserve to be investigated fairly."
Harrington's Crohn's disease flared up again this fall, consigning him to bed for days. He had to put his Omaha Community College studies on hold and had to sit out the football season. Telling as few people as possible, he helped subsidize the leagues and the best teams' return trip to Kansas City. He says he'll be back in the spring, demonstrating technique, working with the kids, sermonizing when necessary. And they'll listen.
At that Central Omaha homecoming game last fall, the home team took an early 10-0 lead. Then the defense collapsed, appearing to have signed a non-aggression pact, while the offense sputtered. The opponents ran off 42 straight points and won in a rout. As the dispirited Omaha Central players left the field, Harrington walked to the front row of the bleachers and summoned the players he'd coached at the Boys Club. They approached. He leaned in and complimented them for individual plays but scolded them for openly moping once their team started losing. "Keep your heads up, guys," he implored. "Don't ever stop fighting. You can't quit. You can't quit, because you never know what can happen."
They nodded back.
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