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Guilty Plea Series: The Case of Leroy Harris

By Innocence Staff

Leroy Harris at the 2018 Innocence Network Conference in Memphis, TN. Photo: Lacy Atkins.

Leroy Harris was in prison when his father died. He was in prison during his father’s funeral and his mother’s multiple hospitalizations and each of his only daughter’s first days of school, kindergarten through twelfth grade. He was in prison for hundreds of holidays, birthdays, school dances, graduations, anniversaries, doctor appointments, cookouts, family reunions and the births of his two granddaughters.

Thoughts of missing more milestones, of being behind bars during his mother’s last days and of watching his granddaughters grow up through photographs the way he’d watched his daughter Kadija, who was only four when he went to prison, were “incentives,” according to Harris, when it came time to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life. In 2017, after spending nearly three decades in prison, Harris was offered an Alford plea. In exchange for pleading guilty to crimes he did not commit—and accepting a wrongful conviction based on false testimony and prosecutorial misconduct—Harris’ 80-year sentence would be reduced to time served.

“I had already served 28 years in prison,” Harris explained after taking the deal. “I could either continue serving the more than 50 years remaining on my sentence or accept an Alford plea in exchange for my freedom…Although I agonized over accepting the plea, I couldn’t spend another day away from the people I loved.”

The Crimes and Investigation

In May 1983, a New Haven nightclub owner was robbed at gunpoint by three young men late one night. The men stole his car, and later that evening robbed and sexually assaulted two women. Harris became one of numerous suspects because he was misidentified.

In the months following the crime, the victims were shown Harris’ photograph as part of the investigation. Neither woman identified him as one of their attackers. Two men, Charles Myers and Jerome Downing, ultimately admitted involvement and pleaded guilty to the crimes. Myers told police that he did not know the third perpetrator. After a second interrogation, Downing implicated Harris as one of the assailants. Shortly after, police showed the victims another photo array with a photograph of Harris. For a second time, neither woman identified Harris or suggested in any way that he was one of the attackers. Despite a lack of physical evidence or reliable eyewitness testimony, Harris was arrested.

The Trial

Harris was tried in April 1989, six years after the crimes were committed. Despite the fact that not a single eyewitness identified Harris as being involved in the crimes prior to trial, all four witnesses—the two assault victims, nightclub owner and nightclub owner’s girlfriend—positively identified Harris for the first time in-court. Downing, on the other hand, testified that he had lied to the police. He said that Harris was not involved in the crime and that he only implicated Harris in order to get a better plea deal for himself.

On April 12, 1989, Harris was convicted of three counts of robbery in the first degree and one count of sexual assault in the first degree. He was sentenced to a total of eighty years in prison.

Post-conviction Investigation

Harris spent years writing petitions for a writ of habeas corpus—a mandate ordering that an inmate to be brought before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment is lawful. Each petition that he filed was denied.

The Innocence Project took on Harris’s case in 2012.  After a thorough investigation, Innocence Project attorneys discovered new DNA evidence excluding Harris as the perpetrator in addition to evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. During Harris’ trial, the prosecutor, James Clark,  violated Harris’ constitutional rights by failing to turn over exculpatory evidence and soliciting false and misleading testimony.

In 2016, the Connecticut Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling that makes it impossible to rely on the first-time in-court identifications of the four witnesses. The court held that such identifications violate defendants’ rights to due process.

As Connecticut Chief Justice Chase Rogers wrote in the majority opinion for the court: “We are hard-pressed to imagine how there could be a more suggestive identification procedure than placing a witness on the stand in open court, confronting the witness with the person who the state has accused of committing the crime, and then asking the witness if he can identify the person who committed the crime.”

Additionally, the Innocence Project ordered post-conviction DNA testing of the blouse worn by one of the victims the night of the attack, which she said the attacker had ripped open. Results confirmed that the DNA could not have come from Harris, providing new scientific evidence to corroborate what Harris had been saying all along: he was misidentified and was factually innocent.

The Plea

“Although I agonized over accepting the plea, I couldn’t spend another day away from the people I loved.”

On November 21, 2017, after nearly three decades of asserting his innocence from behind prison walls, Harris stood before a New Haven judge and pleaded guilty under the Alford doctrine to kidnapping and robbery.

As part of an Alford plea agreement, New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick J. Griffin agreed to vacate Harris’s earlier convictions if Harris agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges of accessory to first-degree kidnapping and three counts of first-degree robbery. While neither Harris nor his lawyers were satisfied with the deal, it enabled him to return home to his family and maintain his innocence despite his “guilty” plea—and allowed the state to keep a guilty finding and avoid being sued. How Harris looked at the deal: “I’d rather fifty percent of something than one hundred percent of nothing.”

Harris now works part-time at a chain restaurant near his home in Connecticut and spends his free time with his daughter, his wife (his daughter’s mother and childhood sweetheart whom he officially married after his release) and grandchildren. Though he has a felony record for crimes he did not commit, cannot receive compensation and remains physically restricted due to limited cash and other resources like a car, Harris is grateful.

“I still see it as a victory,” he said, “because I got out of prison after 29 years. That’s a victory. I’m home. I’m sitting in my La-Z-Boy. I’m laying in my bed. I’m looking at my screen…I’m able to walk out the door. I’m able to breathe fresh air. It’s a different type of air out here than it is behind the walls. Everything is just different. It smells different. The food tastes different. The people look different, you understand what I’m saying, so I’m just grateful.”

To learn more about why innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, visit the guilty plea problem website here.

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