Harris Savoring Freedom After Years On Death Row -- Sentenced To Die 13 Years Ago, He Has Enjoyed Little Things Most Since His Release From Confinement

Copyright 1997, Seattle Times Co.

TACOMA - Tasting freedom for the first time in 13 years, former death-row inmate Benjamin Harris III is enjoying little things the most: visiting relatives, seeing a movie and stopping at a drive-in for a burger and fries.

"Every day is a blessing, and I'm starting to appreciate them a lot more now," Harris said yesterday in his first interview since he was allowed out of confinement earlier this month.

Harris, 50, is the first death-row inmate released from prison in Washington since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1981.

Three weeks ago, he was placed in a program to help him regain skills to live on his own.

His first moments of freedom came when he took a bus alone from Steilacoom to Tacoma to visit family.

"It felt great," he said. "I'm serious. You don't know what it's like to be locked up for that long and then get out and just be able to see things."

What he saw was this: a Tacoma that has gotten bigger, sprouted more office buildings and apartments and filled its streets with "cars that are a lot smaller - and they all look alike."

Harris is being treated in the Program for Adaptive Learning Skills, located at Western State Hospital. Over the next three months, he'll receive mental-health treatment, occupational counseling and be allowed increasing time away from the site.

In an hour-long interview at the office of his attorneys, Neil Hoff and Mike Clark, Harris said he plans to register to vote soon, apply for a driver's license and buy a car, probably a used, older model not as small as the modern compacts.

"I wouldn't mind spending some time up at Mount Rainier, going to movies, playing some chess," he said.

He also hopes to get a job as a warehouseman, work he once did. He now works 20 hours a week at the Western State Hospital laundry.

Sentenced in 1984

Harris was sentenced to die for the 1984 shooting of Tacoma auto mechanic Jimmy Lee Turner. Prosecutors said Harris paid another man $1,000 to do the killing; Harris said he was framed.

In 1994, his conviction and sentence were overturned by a federal judge who ruled Harris' trial lawyer had been incompetent.

Pierce County prosecutors earlier this year said retrying Harris for the murder would be impossible, and dropped the charge.

State attorneys sought to keep Harris confined at Western State Hospital, arguing that he is dangerously mentally ill.

But last month, a jury ruled Harris should be treated in a less restrictive program.

Since Harris was sentenced to die, three different presidents have occupied the White House, Washington's population has grown by more than a million people and 371 inmates have been executed in the United States.

Harris knew two of them: Westley Allan Dodd and Charles Campbell, the only two prisoners executed in Washington since the 1960s.

Dodd, who killed three young boys in Vancouver, was hanged in January 1993 after refusing to appeal his death sentence.

"Dodd was a pretty unique guy," Harris said. "He knew he was wrong, and he wanted to die. That's what he told me, and I have to respect him for knowing that he was wrong."

Of Campbell, hanged in 1994 for the murders of two women and a girl in Snohomish County, Harris has a much different opinion.

"Charles Campbell was a very sick person. . . . He didn't have any remorse," Harris said. "I have children, and I can't think of anything worse" than Campbell's crime.

Harris, Campbell and Dodd were all housed in the prison's "Intensive Management Unit," where inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cells, with one hour to exercise, shower and use a telephone.

Harris got an extra half-hour a day out of his cell by working as a "tier porter," sweeping the hallway outside the cells. It was during that time, he said, that he had conversations with nearly all of the men then under death sentences.

Everyone's innocent

"To hear them tell it, they're all innocent," said Harris, adding that he avoided getting drawn into conversations about their legal appeals.

The work also netted Harris $25 a month, which he spent on candy for his sweet tooth and postage for the letters he sent to relatives, friends and lawyers.

One of his most vivid death-row memories was the tension and quiet the night Dodd was hanged in the penitentiary's first execution since 1963.

"That made everybody sit up and take notice, believe me," Harris said. "Each person knew that it could be them next."

Harris himself had two execution dates set, in 1987 and in 1989. One got so close that a prison official came to ask him to choose between hanging and lethal injection.

"I always had hope. Hope and prayers," said Harris. "I prayed that I would be spared because I was innocent."

Turner's death wasn't Harris' first problem with the law. In 1969, he was convicted of manslaughter for shooting a man who had attacked him. That conviction was later dropped and Harris' action was judged to be self-defense, attorney Clark said.

Harris is just the third person in the country in 1997 to gain freedom after having been on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The center's director, Richard Dieter, said that since the mid-1970s, 71 death-row inmates have been released from prison because their convictions were overturned.

Harris, a Tacoma native, says he draws support from family members in the area, but to protect their privacy, he didn't want to say whichrelatives.

Despite their assistance, he feels it would be better to move out of the area for a fresh start.

In his years in prison, Harris' hair has become grayer and thinner, and two years ago he began wearing glasses. He feels he's not just older, but wiser, and plans to avoid associations that led to trouble in the past.

Prison officials "have seen the last of me," he vowed.

Jack Broom's phone message number is 206-464-2222. His e-mail address is: jbro-new@seatimes.com

------------------------------------- Key dates in the Benjamin Harris case -------------------------------------


-- June 14: Auto mechanic Jimmy Lee Turner is fatally shot outside his home in Tacoma's Hilltop area.

-- Oct. 29: Harris is convicted of paying a man $1,000 to kill Turner.

-- Oct. 31: Jurors decide Harris should die. Formal sentencing is Jan. 14, 1985.


-- Oct. 2: Washington Supreme Court affirms Harris' conviction and death sentence.

-- Dec. 15: Harris' first death warrant sets his execution for Feb. 27, 1987. The execution is stayed pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.


-- March 23: U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear appeal.

-- April 13: Execution is stayed pending state-court appeal.


-- Nov. 10: Harris' state-court appeal is denied.


-- May 30: Harris is ruled competent to be executed; a second death warrant sets his execution for July 11, 1989.

-- June 22: Execution is stayed pending federal-court appeal.


-- March 2: U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan in Tacoma overturns Harris' conviction and sentence. State attorneys appeal the decision.


-- Sept. 12: Bryan's decision is upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

-- Oct. 5: State attorneys decide not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.


-- April 4: Harris is sent to Western State Hospital to see if he is competent to stand trial again on the murder charge.

-- Nov. 20: A Pierce County judge rules Harris is competent for a new trial.


-- May 28: Prosecutors say a second trial would be impossible; the murder charge against Harris is dropped.

-- May 30: A court commissioner orders Harris held at Western State Hospital for evaluation after state attorneys say he is dangerously mentally ill.

-- June: State attorneys ask to commit Harris for three more months; Harris' attorneys ask to put the question to a jury.

-- July 16: Pierce County jurors say Harris is mentally ill but should be treated in a less restrictive setting.

-- July 28: Harris is placed in a program to help him with living skills in preparation for a transition to freedom.