James Harris

Sep 3, 2013

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Harris James


News flash: James Harris’ conviction for first degree murder was vacated and a new trial ordered by the United States of America Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on the grounds that the jury that convicted him unconstitutionally excluded African Americans.  His trial is currently pending in the Cook County Criminal Court.  Contact the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression for trial dates and times , 312-939-2750 or [email protected]

James Harris. Born March 30, 1953.  Has been imprisoned for 27 years plus and always maintained his innocence, as has one of his original lawyers, Michael Levitan.

Facts of the case

Feb 10, 1983. An Armed robbery took place near 69th and State street, Chicago. Jesse James Sr, owner of  Jesse’s Lounge and Liquors’ was shot and died from head wound in hospital. Employee Theresa Woods received minor injury to shoulder.

May 1st 1984, Harris was found guilty, charged with attempted murder, attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery. Judge Kenneth Gillis gave him 30 & 15 consecutive years; Death Penalty given August 23, 1984. He was sentenced to Death under a system of Capital Punishment that Governor Ryan, and many others familiar with its operation described as deeply flawed. In 2003 Governor Ryan cleared Death Row in Illinois and gave all those on it at the time, including James Harris, Life Without Parole.

James Harris had, on the day of the robbery, collected his first social security money and reported to his parole officer. Every cent that was found on him was accounted for and proved that he had obtained it from social services. The parole officer came forward as a witness at his trial because he had co-signed the social security check. Harris had only just got out of prison and had only his prison ID. There was no robbery proved so how did he get charged with Armed Robbery?

State’s principal evidence, single eye-witness Theresa Woods gives conflicting evidence.

In one account Woods says an armed man told them to get into Mr James’s car. Assailant, identified by Woods as James Harris, directed Mr James to drive to an alley. Said he wanted $300. Told by Mr James he would have to go back to the tavern to get money, assailant said to drive back to an alley off 69th St. Woods got the money, found car had been moved to corner of alley and 69th St, she did not see the car move. Says Harris told her to get back in car. Mr James said no reason for her to do that. Gunman pulled Mr James to him. Woods heard shot. She then started to run, did not see accused or Mr James exit car. Heard another shot, tripped and fell on her left side and then onto her back, gunman came and stood over her, she heard shot rolled, onto her stomach, heard gunman running away, later found she had been shot in right shoulder. Getting up she observed Mr James laying on ground, behind trunk, the car having run into building next to alley. She ran back into tavern and called police. Abraham Wilson, Rene Daniels (Wilson’s partner) and Det Geraldine Perry came. On examination Woods denied telling detective she had seen car crash, didn’t remember telling detective she had approached car and witnessed conversation between assailant and Mr James, She also denied she told the physician at Billings Hospital, Marion Chung, that she had been hit by bullet as she was running away and fell to ground. Woods indicated to police, assailant was 5’5″ or 5’ 6 tall.  Mr Harris is 5’ 11″. Woods is 5’4″, so assailant was 1-2 inches taller, Police acknowledged she said this and they say she would have known if assailant was 1-2” taller than herself or half a foot taller. Daniels, the cop, was very accurate in judging height.
She also stated that gunman had a large afro .Harris wore his hair in corn rolls. She also said Harris stood directly over her while she was lying on the ground and had deliberately shot her at point blank. Earlier she had said she had been running while shot. Her testimony was critical for establishing death penalty eligibility. Following shots she told 2 different cops on 3 occasions that she observed car rocking and struggle and movement within car, then car crashed into building. (Having previously said she did not see this) Her 1st version of events was consistent with the physical evidence, her second version was not. She told treating physician at hospital that after she had been shot she fell to ground being hit by bullet. 3 times she gave version consistent with Mr James being shot accidently during struggle and once with her being hit with errant bullet as she fled. According to victim Theresa Woods, Jesse James was shot inside the car. There was no blood found in the car. When being treated by Dr Marion Chung afterwards, she said the gentleman had come into her place of work and shot her there while she was running away, falling, when the bullet hit her shoulder. Dr Ling at the hospital took her statement down verbatim and testified, also states that she told him the same story. Police Detective Geradine Perry gave a different account of the incident. Woods told Perry, who spoke to her at Billings Hospital the day of the accident, that when she emerged from the tavern with the money, she saw the car moving down the street and saw “some movement in the front seat of the car, she watched the car crash into the storefront”; she did not say she approached the driver’s side of the car or that she heard any words spoken by Mr. James or accused. So many inconsistencies, Woods story becomes impossible to believe.

The weapon

Abe Wilson, Cop, stated evidence linked Harris to gun that state ballistics concluded had been used to kill Jesse James. He said he and his partner Renee Daniels responded to call. Found Mr James car at angle into storefront church, Mr James lying 4/5 feet away from car, near curb, bleeding from head. Mr James stated to Wilson that assailant had shot him, then he attempted to get up. Wilson leaned Mr James against car, called ambulance. Wilson admitted he had not written report describing man who had been shot, nor told anyone about dying declaration. On cross examination Wilson said he did not know Mr James had been shot, which is why he had helped him to his feet.

State evidence linking Harris to murder weapon was Conrail pc/s Michael Grady, Ted Kurzweil who arrested him, stated they had removed gun from his waistband. Richard Chenow, Chicago pc firearms, concluded bullet from Mr James head had been fired from gun.

This may have proved it was from that particular gun, but did not prove who had fired it. There were no finger-prints taken and the police handled both the gun and the bullets.

Harris said he had been with his sister Marie Brown until 3.30am; this is confirmed. Then he was on his way to his Mother in law’s house a few blocks from where his children aged 3 and 5 lived as he wanted to be there for them first thing in the morning. Standing in door way of 63rd and S. State St waiting for a bus, saw car moving slowly, knocked on window asked for ride, offered to pay. Mr Cleveland Johnson, driver of car confirmed this and stated Harris had not been carrying a gun, nor he did not see any gun before the Conrail officer produced it. Yet it was supposed to have been in his right hand, the hand he used to bang on the roof of the car, the hand Conrail officer Michael Grady said he saw it in and his partner Ted Kurzweil said he did not see.  Before Mr Johnson could respond, Blazer arrived, 2 Conrail pc, jumped out pointing a gun at Harris. Mr Johnson was not properly cross- examined in court and is now deceased.

Ballistic evidence has never been examined by experts, or independent lab for defense. They seemingly proved the gun produced was the one used in the crime, but NOT who actually used it as there was no DNA whatsoever taken.

State Prosecutor Dan Franks (observed by Dr Marion Chung,) made repeated attempts to have other witnesses change testimony to detriment of Mr Harris. The 2 Conrail officers had supposedly seen Harris running across the street in front of their parked vehicle, while swinging a gun. Their credibility was critical as they had allegedly recovered the gun from Harris which was identified through ballistics as the murder weapon. The day they were to testify the 2 officers were waiting with Dr Marion Chung. Dan Frank showed them photographs of intersection where they allegedly spotted Harris with gun. Officers agreed with each other that their car was not parked immediately to corner, but one car length further back. Franks disagreed, said had to be parked nearer for them to get good view of Harris, and spent a whole hour going over and over distance of vehicle from corner so they agreed with him. Former state attorney Michael Levitan, who gave affidavit, stated this fell far below ethical and legal standards.  Dr Marion Chung told she would not be called as a witness to Theresa Woods’s statement as her reports were totally opposite to Woods testimony and would undermine Woods testimony. Instead Franks lied and told court Dr Chung was out of town and could not testify. Dr Chung testified, day 2 of trial, when subpoenaed at state attorneys office that she was not out of town. This amounts to prosecutorial misconduct.

Former Witness, Medical report and further lies
At 2nd Capital sentencing hearing State presented false evidence again, declining to turn over medical records of John Szurnigala, during PC proceedings, who they claimed Harris had been arrested for robbing and savagely beating .Obtained through subpoena, shows it was in fact a few minor cuts and bruises, that much of Mr Szurnigala’s testimony was demonstrably false and that Harris was denied a hearing on this claim. Defendant’s amended post-conviction petition was also supported by a copy of the medical records from the hospital where John Szumigala was treated after the 1971 robbery. The injuries reflected in these records do not appear to be as severe as those described by Szumigala at the sentencing hearing. Defendant also attached an opinion, from the physician, stating the medical records do not bear out the allegations of Mr. Szumigala’s permanent injury which the physician stated would certainly have appeared by the time he was discharged from the hospital. In addition defendant attached a copy of his 1971 testimony given for a former robbery charge, which differed somewhat from the testimony which Szumigala gave at the sentence hearing in 1992. There is also an affidavit from attorney Joseph McElliot that he did not receive Szumigala’s medical evidence from the state; that he would have used this undisclosed evidence to further impeach Szumigala if he had them.

Under proposed reforms since commutations with Gov Ryan, James Harris could have deposed of single witness Theresa Woods, regarding height, then she would not have been able to change her version of events: electronic recordings would also not have allowed her to change her story and deny what she said at actual trial: photo identification procedures should have been video-taped, Ms Woods initially got JH’s identification characteristics wrong, but had not mentioned it to police: suspects photo should not stand out as being different, but he had been made to comb hair out  from corn-rolls into Afro and was the only one in the line up with Afro: No-one mentioned his moustache or severely displaced front tooth.

Now under new law, the line-up procedure used, with just the one witness as well, is Illegal. The Governor’s commission also recommended that “Eyewitness testimony should be carefully examined in light of other evidence in the case” Mr Harris’s jury was not instructed on this and if they had of been, they would likely have discounted Theresa Woods contradictory testimony. The commission also recommended the Supreme Court consider if a defendant’s death sentence is disproportionate to sentences received by other defendants and the court would have had to concede that Mr Harris’ sentence was excessive.
He was made to comb his corn-rolls out into a large afro, photographed in the blue jean jacket and jeans he had been arrested in, the one he was supposed to have shot Mr James point blank, yet there was no blood on it. The others in the line up were bald, wore hats or had their hair straightened. He was the only one wearing blue jeans. It was suggestive, unfair and improper and also it is now illegal.

Counsel failed to properly cross examine Conrail Police Officer Michael Grady who gave inconsistent statements both about the gun & the height of Mr. Harris. He also failed in his cross examination about the way he allegedly handled the weapon upon recovering it.

Chicago police officer James Frankenbach stated he noticed no blood on the interior of the car ,photo evidence shows no evidence of blood, nor were there any tests to determine if there was. Counsel did not raise this issue either. The lack of blood impeaches severely the credibility of James Harris’s own attorney. Trial counsel alleged blood was found in the car, but there was NO such evidence.

Officer Frankenbach did not know how far the car had been moved or if it fact it had been moved as there was no evidence for this. The court erred in refusing to allow the defense to call the court reporter to tie up the impeachment of Conrail officer Grady. In closing argument the court repeatedly erred in allowing the state to tell the jury that Cleveland Johnson had seen the accused remove the gun from his waistband, when Mr. Johnson had stated he had not seen the gun until Officer Grady produced it.

After the trial was over, and just before the jury went into deliberation, the State decided to drop that failed robbery charge and charge him with attempted armed robbery, despite his money being accounted for. The jury was instructed as to what can reasonably be assumed as attempted armed robbery: effectively telling the jury to rule on a charge that he was never charged with. He was found guilty of a crime without any chance to defend himself against said crime.

On His Legal Grounds.
He appealed his conviction and Death Penalty vacated, subject to re-instatement. Batson v Kentucky challenges   17 Blacks & 1 Hispanic removed by prosecutor from Jury. New sentence hearing granted on grounds unreliable evidence used to sentence him to death.  Re- sentenced to death by Judge Hibbler March 25, 1992.  Mr Harris filed Pro-se petition for PC relief. Judge.Salone Aug 17, 1999 pc dismissed denied motion to reconsider. No hearing held on any claims! Appealed, orally argued Nov 14, 2001 Supreme court. Rita Fry was sent to the scene of the crime when she was a young attorney. She observed that if the police had been parked where they said they were, they would have noticed James Harris easily as there was a metal traffic box and he would have been taller than where that stood. But they did not notice him, despite supposedly looking for a black man with a large afro and blue jean jacket. A shorter man would not have been seen. Rita Fry retired a few years ago as Chief Executive in Cook County Public Defenders Office.

Mr. Harris had clearly presented evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. Testimony of Dr Marion R. Chung has demonstrated that the testimony of officer Grady and Kurzweil are highly suspect if not perjured.

James Harris Personal Life History & Education

He was one of five children and grew up in a housing project on the South Side of Chicago. His father being a chronic alcoholic died of cirrhosis of the liver when James was 12. Prior to his death police had been called numerous times due to his father physically abusing his mother. His mother then worked 2 jobs to support them and James was raised mostly by his 14 yr old sister.
James attended Oakenwald public school right thorough to 8th grade where he won a scholarship for his Artwork and attended School of  the Art Institute Chicago a couple of nights a week for several years. He then attended Dunbar Vocational High School was arrested at age 16 and placed in Cook County Jail for 7 months where the State dropped all charges against him. He obtained his GED, took courses on brick-laying, lettering and sign painting, radio and TV repairs. At age 15 he worked at the Lincoln Center Library. He also taught Art Classes for two and half years whilst incarcerated. When released he worked as a day labourer at Motorola, Jay’s Potato crisps and an oil refinery located at 98th and Stoney Island. He has 4 children including one step-daughter and has been a widower since 1999.

He cannot use DNA to exonerate himself as there was none taken! It was a faulty line up procedure. A line up procedure that was SO bad that its now totally illegal, under the Obama-Cullerton reforms to the death system in Illinois
How in the world can a legal recognition that the line up procedure used against a defendant who has always claimed innocence, the procedure which now being fully illegal and replaced with a much better system, how can he still be deemed guilty?
James Harris is 59 now, still sits in his cell claiming innocence after 26 years. He is a superb artist and was before he entered prison. He suffers from Chronic Diabetes and his sight is fading due to lack of proper diet and correct medical procedures.

The state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt.

If you know anything about this crime, are one of the people mentioned here, or want to assist,
Please contact:

Judith Stuart
Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression
1325 S. Wabash Ave. Suiye 105
Chicago IL 60605
Email:  [email protected]    or [email protected].

Or write directly to him:

James Harris A01607
711 Kaskaskia St
P.O.Box 1000
Menard C.C.
Illinois 62259