Bobby Lee Harris is not the kind of cold-blooded, unremorseful killer for whom the death penalty is supposed to be reserved. That's the claim of Daniel K. Shatz, the Durham attorney who is hoping for a miracle that will stop Harris' 2 a.m. execution Friday at Raleigh's Central Prison.
Shatz and the staff of Durham's Center for Death Penalty Litigation have been working feverishly for the last few weeks trying to save the soft-spoken Harris' life.
"The facts in this case simply do not support the death penalty," Shatz says. "The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the most egregious and the most aggravated homicide offenses, and this case simply was not such a case.
"Bobby Harris is not a cold-blooded killer."
Harris' plea for mercy appears compelling. With an IQ that measures in the low- to mid-70s--70 and below is considered mentally retarded--lawyers and others argue that Harris should not have been sentenced to die for the Jan. 19, 1991 murder of John Redd while Harris, his co-defendant Joseph Simpson and Redd were at sea on a shrimp boat off the coast of Onslow County.
Both state and federal courts have ruled against Harris' appeals, and an appeal to Gov. Mike Easley is now Harris' best shot at avoiding lethal injection. Since executions resumed in North Carolina in 1984, 16 people have been executed. Just three times have former governors Jim Martin (once) and Jim Hunt (twice) opted to spare the lives of men scheduled to die.
As attorney general, Easley was responsible for the prosecution of the appeals of death row cases, a fact that defense lawyers have cited as a conflict of interest for the governor. Conflict or not, Easley is Harris' best hope as the hours tick away.
Last week, Harris made a videotape to the governor expressing his remorse over Redd's death. Easley had turned down a request from Harris' lawyer, Mark E. Edwards of Durham, for the governor or a member of his staff to interview Harris at Central Prison. Instead, Easley agreed to accept the videotape.
"Most of the time I sit and wish I could bring [Redd] back," Harris says on the video. "I pray for him." Given the chance to speak to Redd's family, Harris says he would tell them, "I'm sorry. I wish I could change what happened."
Following the stabbing, Harris and Simpson left the injured Redd on an island, hoping, according to Harris, that he would be rescued. The pair fled to Georgia in Redd's truck. Redd was found and transported to a Camp Lejeune Hospital where he later died from blood loss. Redd, Harris and Simpson were all intoxicated at the time of the stabbing. After learning of Redd's death, Harris and Simpson turned themselves in. Harris confessed to stabbing Redd, claiming that he never intended to kill his victim. Simpson never accepted any blame for Redd's death, was subsequently offered a plea bargain and is slated for release from prison in 2006. Harris' full confession "essentially made the case against him," Shatz says.
In a press conference on Jan. 10, Duke surgeon Joseph A. Moylan, who was asked by defense attorneys to review Redd's medical records, said the victim would have survived his injuries had he received better medical care at the Camp Lejeune hospital.
"I'm concerned that Mr. Redd did not receive proper care, that the injury he had was very treatable, and had aggressive, appropriate and early intervention been provided, we would not be faced here with a decision about whether we need clemency," Moylan said. "This would have been an assault case and not a murder case."
Defense lawyers have also cited other problems with Harris' case. Harris' court-appointed trial lawyer was ill with cancer during the trial. His illness resulted in numerous mistakes that likely led to Harris receiving a death sentence. Jurors, for example, were never told of Harris' low IQ, lawyers say.
Kara Richards, a mitigation investigator with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, has been visiting Harris for two years. Richards says Harris experienced "a lot of neglect" as a child, and began heavy alcohol use at age 11, suffering an "alcohol overdose" at age 13.
Richards says Harris is not very forthcoming about his abusive childhood because he refuses to cast blame on anyone else for his predicament. "He never makes excuses for what he's done," she says. "He never blames anyone else. He doesn't wallow in self-pity. He's not self-absorbed."
Harris' case drew some international attention when his photo appeared in a series of anti-death penalty ads sponsored by Benetton, an Italian clothing manufacturer. A German woman, Dagmar Polzin, saw the ad and tracked Harris to Central Prison. After exchanging a few letters, Polzin came to the United States to visit Harris. They are now engaged. Polzin lives in Raleigh and plays a major role in supporting Harris.
Polzin says Harris, who takes antidepressants, is overwhelmed by the efforts being made to save his life.
"He told me he got so much letters from people he don't know; they wish him luck," Polzin said after visiting Harris last Friday. "I told him all the people outside, they are all fighting for you.
"He was sometimes very quiet, then very happy, and he told me, he can't believe that because he was a forgotten son of God. He told me, 'God, he forgot me all the years, all the years.'
"He's special. Everybody loves him, everybody--his lawyer told everybody, 'It's not my client. He's a friend.' The cops like him. The warden likes him. The chaplains like him. He's a very warmhearted and gentle person."
Polzin says she is "very sure" Easley will grant Harris clemency.
"Everybody is scared about [Easley] because he was the attorney general," Polzin says. "[Easley] knows this case. He can't kill this man. This man is not a first-degree murderer, and he knows it."