Terry Harrington spent 25 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit
Terry Harrington was a football star in Nebraska with dreams of going big time
In 1977 he was arrested for a murder in Iowa and later convicted of the crime
Harrington maintained innocence and finally was cleared thanks to unlikely source
The full moon rose steadily like movie credits and then hovered on the other side of the Missouri River, backlighting downtown Omaha. It was Homecoming Night at Central High. The Eagles hosted Millard South at their new football stadium, built largely from donations from the city's first family, the Buffetts. Over the din of cheering parents, the strains of the pep band and the refs' whistles, a distinct voice, deep and firm, pierced the autumn air. C'mon Jemal, remember your stance!
Seated on the bleachers, eight rows back, Terry Harrington wore loafers, low-slung jeans, a denim jacket, a neatly trimmed beard and a white Kangol cap covering his bald head. "Hey, it's Samuel L. Jackson," an old friend yelled. Harrington, 51, caught hugs, winks and slaps on the shoulder. Behind his back, he was the object of you-know-who-that-is? looks. That's the dude who spent 25 years in jail for a murder he didn't commit. Harrington fixed his gaze on the game, though, tunneling in on the defensive backfield, alternately gripping a rolled-up program and then opening it to check names on the roster. That's it Jack, get inside. Grab his pads and it ain't holding!
A few years ago, Harrington had coached some of Central's best players. They were in middle school and he was the defensive coordinator for their Heartland little league football team, a program run through the Omaha Boys and Girls Club. "Coach Terry," a volunteer, taught technique and exposed the kids to the dark arts of football, tricks like stripping the ball from running backs (grab the nose and twist) and bumping receivers. He preached the virtues of defense, importance of defending terrain, as opposed to acquiring it. He challenged the best players, installing a complex "5-2 Monster" scheme. He also comforted the less-talented players, explaining how they could be leaders from the sidelines.
"Up and down the line, the kids respect that man," says Sherri Brown, whose son played on the team. "He knew what buttons to push." That year, Harrington took three teams to Kansas City for a regional tournament. Two of them placed first; the other one played up an age division and came in second.
The boys are novice adults now -- "growing taller and, hopefully, growing up," says Harrington -- some of them rising high school stars. He would like to think that their success is at least partially a legacy of those sessions at the Boys Club. One player, Jack Davis, only a sophomore, was Central's starting tailback and cornerback. Jemal Shabazz, a broad-shouldered junior, started at linebacker and has designs of playing Division I. A third, Andre Kincaid, a junior, is already 260 pounds and plays center and nose guard. "That's it, twenty-five. Stand your ground!"
As Harrington watches the kids, he can't resist the urge to coach. He also can't resist playing time-traveler and rewinding the clock. In the mid-1970s, a mile or so up Dodge Road, Harrington was a junior at Omaha Technical High. The school closed in the 80s, but it had a rich athletic tradition, trophy cases filled with relics of graduates like Bob Gibson, 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, and longtime NBA players Ron Boone and Bob Boozer. Harrington fit into the jock tapestry, too. He played some baseball and some jayvee basketball, once matching up ("not very well") against Mike McGee, who'd eventually suit up for the Lakers. But Harrington's passion was football. A fierce linebacker, number 52, he offset average speed and modest size (175 pounds and 5-foot-11, even accounting for a mountainous Afro) with a taste for contact and unfailing instincts.
He lettered as a freshman and started as a sophomore. "I called him Captain Crunch," says Tech tailback Kenneth Colbert, who dispensed the nickname after Harrington leveled him in an intrasquad scrimmage. "Lemme tell you something, boy: Terry was a hitter." Terrence Mackey, who played Boys Club football with Harrington and then competed against him at Omaha's Benson High, adds: "There were better athletes but not many kids with better technique."
Harrington lived in north Omaha with his mother and sisters. An older brother was off fighting in Vietnam. Money was tight, but no one felt poor. It was a time of optimism. Saturdays were for sports. Sundays meant church and movies. In high school, Harrington was a capable student and popular kid, nominated for homecoming court. Small colleges inquired about recruiting him for football. Others simply wanted him as a student, including, he says, Yale. "You know how sometimes sports allow you to get an education?" he says. "With me, the academics were going to let me keeping playing football."
In his senior year, he went through a lapse familiar to anyone who has -- or has been -- a teenager. Having already accumulated enough credits to graduate, he lost motivation for school. When he slacked off in football practice, Omaha Tech coach Carl Wright, a former Marine, benched Harrington hoping it would galvanize the kid to work harder. When it didn't, Wright moved Harrington to defensive end. Harrington quit the team.
Without sports, his friends changed, and so did his attitude. One night, Harrington was talked into driving the getaway car in a botched robbery, earning him probation since it was his first offense. He graduated in 1977, but with Yale out of the question, he enrolled in a local community college with hopes of transferring and playing football. "Peer pressure, bad choices, stupidity," he says, shaking his head. "Man, one bad stage at that age can change everything."
On July 22, 1977, Harrington and a group of friends went to a concert by the funk band Ohio Players at Peony Park, an Omaha arcade. Outside the gates, Harrington bumped into Carl Wright, there chaperoning his daughters. Outgoing as ever, Harrington chatted up his coach and asked a question that had been in the catacombs of his mind for months: Why did you bench me? The two men talked, first about football, then about life. They missed most of the concert. Harrington vowed to resume what had once been a promising football career. "Coach Wright said he was disappointed in me," says Harrington. "I could respect that because at the time, I was disappointed in me, too."
That same night, a few miles from the concert on the other side of the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa, John Schweer was working as a security guard at a car dealership. Schweer had recently retired as a police captain and was making some extra money. On this night, he heard a noise, left his post to investigate and was shot in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun, left to die flanking the nearby railroad tracks. Crime was rare in Council Bluffs, a drowsy, middle class town on Iowa's western border. Murders were almost unheard of. Police had extra motivation to solve this one: the dead man was a former colleague.
Harrington says he never heard about the murder that summer. He enrolled in community college in early fall, but his studies were halted when he was arrested. An informant claimed Harrington had stolen a car in Fremont, Neb. He says he was more confused than anything else. "I just figured it was a mistake that would be corrected," he says.
But instead of being released, Harrington was charged with murder. Relying largely on the testimony of an alleged co-conspirator, the police theorized that Harrington and another Omaha friend, Curtis McGhee, had attempted to steal a car that night. When Schweer left his post to investigate, Harrington opened fire. Harrington told anyone who would listen that he hadn't attempted to steal a car that night, and he sure as hell hadn't murdered anyone. Again, he figured he'd get his day in court, there would be justice and he could get on with his life.
The prosecution's case against Harrington was riddled with holes. There was no physical evidence linking Harrington to the crime, nor was a weapon recovered. Police found bullet residue in a jacket Harrington had owned (Harrington had a hunting rifle), but it wasn't from a 12-gauge and it was too minute a specimen to be consistent with a blast fired at close range. Harrington had an alibi that he was at the concert and Carl Wright was willing to testify.
The most intriguing clue was a set of fresh paw prints near Schweer's body, yet Harrington didn't own a dog. Despite the absence of forensic evidence and the various unanswered questions, Pottawattamie Assistant County Attorney Joseph Hrvol would testify that there were no other suspects.
The prosecution's chief informant was Kevin Hughes, who lived near the Harringtons in Omaha. Harrington remembers his mom opening their door to the kid when there were fights in the Hughes home. Hughes was now 16 and already had a criminal record. When first questioned, he named three other men as the killer before fingering Harrington. He alleged that Schweer was killed with a pistol, then a 20-gauge shotgun and finally settled on a 12-gauge.
And while Hughes wasn't the most credible of witnesses, his testimony against Harrington was supported by various other mutual friends and acquaintances. One by one, they rebutted Harrington's alibi, claiming that Schweer's murder occurred after the concert, and asserted that Harrington had gone to the dealership intending to boost a car. A parade of witnesses claimed that they'd seen Harrington's car, an Oldsmobile, on the night of the murder; yet, Harrington's car had been hit over July Fourth weekend, and, for all the meticulous descriptions, no one mentioned the prominent dent in the car. "I just kept thinking, 'Why are y'all doing this to me?'" says Harrington.
Harrington's representation was not always vigorous. Coach Wright, now deceased, expressed shock that his testimony wasn't used prominently. ("They didn't ask me anything that would help Terry," he once complained to a reporter.) Cynics suggested that law enforcement in overwhelmingly white Council Bluffs were feeling pressure to solve the case -- especially with the election of the prosecutor, David Richter, coming up. They simply rounded up some black teenagers from across the river.
On Aug. 4, 1978, an all-white Iowa jury convicted Harrington of first-degree murder. He was given a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole, the maximum sentence in Iowa, a state that abolished the death penalty in 1965. In a separate trial, McGhee, the alleged accomplice, was also convicted of first-degree murder. Harrington stood before the court, defiant that the wrong man had been convicted: "I just want you to know that no matter what happens, I know I'm innocent, and as long as I feel that inside, then I'm going to keep on fighting because I know I can't see myself locked up for the rest of my life for something I didn't do. ... I feel I was judged by the color of my skin and not the content of my character."
It hadn't hit Harrington until the sentencing. He was going to jail. Not just any jail, but the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, a sliver of hell on the banks of the Mississippi in Eastern Iowa. Coming from out of state and without ties to a street gang, Harrington would be a complete outsider. Having just turned 19, he was the youngest inmate in the complex. And his conviction for killing a cop wasn't going to earn him favor among the guards. "A year before, I was a normal kid, just wanting to go to college, play football," he says, stopping to summon the moment. "Now I have to get my head right. Everyone said the same thing: Terry is too nice. He ain't gonna survive in prison."
Harrington isn't sure whether it was conscious or simply survival instincts, but he hatched a plan. On the other side of the concertina wire, he was no longer Terry. He was T.J. "It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing," he says. Whereas Terry was an outgoing joker, T.J. was a badass, economical with his words. Terry had never been prone to violence, at least not off the football field; T.J. managed to procure a knife within his first day in the joint, figuring out that the workers tasked with cleaning the cells also trafficked in weapons. Terry was open and transparent; T.J. was opaque. "If I cried all night -- remember, I'm in prison for the rest of my life and they ain't never letting me out -- by morning no one knew it."