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Arkansas Governor Hutchinson Grants Commutation for Blind Mother

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson agreed to commute Willie Mae Harris’ sentence after 34 years in prison for accidentally shooting her abusive husband. She was released on June 5, 2020.

Harris, 72, from Bradley, Arkansas was charged with murder in 1985 after an argument with then-husband Clyde. She tried to beat him back with a gun, which went off and killed him. Her 13-year-old daughter was present at the time. Harris refused a 20-year plea agreement, maintaining that it was an accident in self-defense. She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life.

Harris was sent to Wrightsville Women’s Facility where she started teaching other prisoners how to read. According to her records, she has not received any disciplinary reports and has a risk assessment of “minimum.” She completed several programs, such as anger management and stress management, and attended self-help groups. She suffered a stroke in 2008, which took her eyesight.

Lee Eaton, a New Orleans attorney representing Harris, sought commutation for Harris several times in the past 11 years. Her daughter, Silvia Jackson Harris, who was not able to testify during her mother’s trial due to her age, was able to argue that the killing was unintentional and resulted after years of abuse. “This woman loved her husband,” she said, “and was not trying to take his life, it was just a freak accident and accidents happen.”

Nazgol Ghandnoosh, senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, said the fact that no governor would sign off on Harris’ commutation after the parole board recommended it on five separate occasions just shows “how much politics skews public safety decisions.”

It was not until support for Harris’ release was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that a lot of attention was brought to the case. Columnist Mike Masterson interviewed Silvia Harris, who related the ongoing abuse that was not brought out at trial. “Through all the terrible mistreatment our mother endured, she kept forgiving him because, like us, she really did love him,” she said.

Hutchinson said it was more letters from Harris’ immediate family and friends that convinced him to grant this commutation than it was letters from the public. It was an “important role of the governor to correct unjust sentences,” he said. “It gives me confidence that there’s not going to be an issue if this person is released.”

The commutation was granted, and the parole board approved parole. Her daughter stated that Harris would finally be able to meet her entire family, including her nine grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. 



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