Jean Harris Trial: 1980-81

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Jean Harris Trial: 1980-81

Defendant: Jean S. Harris
Crime Charged: Second-degree murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Joel Aurnou
Chief Prosecutor: George Bolen
Judge: Russell R. Leggett
Place: White Plains, New York
Dates of Trial: November 21, 1980-February 24, 1981
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 15 years to life

SIGNIFICANCE: Jean Harris' trial was initially famous for the celebrity of the lover she was accused of murdering, but the handling of her defense and the sentence pronounced were debated for years afterward. Her prison writings were among the books prompting review of New York's "Son of Sam" law by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 10, 1980, Jean Harris left the exclusive Virginia school for girls where she was headmistress and drove 400 miles to the Purchase, New York, home of Dr. Herman Tarnower. Harris entered the bedroom of her lover of 14 years carrying a bouquet of flowers and a loaded revolver. Her version of what happened next would be emotionally debated in one of the most widely examined trials in the history of New York state.

Bullets from Harris' gun had indisputably killed the 69-year-old Tarnower, author of the popular The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. Yet Harris' attorney, Joel Aurnou, announced that his client's intended victim had been herself. Despondent over Tarnower's rejection of her for a younger woman and depressed by the pressures of her job at the Madeira School, the 57-year-old headmistress had driven to the cardiologist's house to see him a last time before committing suicide. Harris claimed that Tarnower was accidentally wounded trying to wrest the gun from her.

The Westchester County District Attorney's office proposed that Harris' actions were hardly self-destructive. They accused her of shooting Tarnower in a jealous fury that had been building for years. From the moment her trial began in November 1980, her intent at the time she pulled the trigger was the crucial issue that would determine her fate.

An Awkward Start

The early weeks of the trial went awkwardly for the prosecution. Physical evidence had been mishandled by suburban police, who seemed unaccustomed to following proper procedures amid the novelty of such a bloody situation. Prosecutor George Bolen called Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Louis Roh, who testified that a bullet hole in Tarnower's hand was consistent with the nature of a "defensive wound," sustained while trying to push away a gun barrel. Roh testified that one of the three bullets found in Tarnower's body had entered through the palm, passed through the hand, and lodged in the chest. Aurnou responded with forensic expert Herbert Leon MacDonnell, who explained how the bloodstains found on Tarnower's bedclothes and pajamas supported defense claims of a struggle over the gun.

Hours turned into weeks as contending medical and ballistics experts testified in numbing detail. Dr. Roh reappeared to testify that tissue found in a chest wound might have been carried from Tarnower's palm by the bullet, bolstering the theory that the victim had raised his hand defensively. Aurnou counter attacked with a succession of pathologists who disputed Roh's palm-tissue theory.

As the prosecution's case wobbled, Aurnou called numerous character witnesses, attempting to portray Harris as "a lady" whose self-control made it impossible for her to commit murder. Madeira School trustees and students testified to Harris' reputation for integrity and discipline, despite her growing signs of depression.

Harris Testifies

Aurnou decided to put Harris on the stand. The strain of Tarnower's rejection and the pressures of her career burst forth in emotional exchanges between lawyer and client. Aurnou's probing of Harris' precarious emotional state intended to show that she had been pushed to the point of suicide, not murder. Harris described in detail how she and Tarnower struggled over the gun with which she tried to kill herself.

The defense view of Harris as a stolid, sympathetic figure in control of her behavior despite intense suffering began to blur under prosecutor Bolen's cross-examination. Harris' responses to his questions were haughty and abrasive. She accused other witnesses of perjury. Yet Aurnou's failure to subdue his client's temper was overshadowed by an even graver miscalculation.

Harris testified that she had mailed Tarnower a registered letter on the morning of March 10. She telephoned him later, interrupting his consultation with a patient. Harris told the doctor to throw the letter away when it arrived. After Tarnower's death, the defense team had quickly retrieved the thick envelope from the post office. When the prosecution asked to examine it during the trial, Aurnou theatrically removed it from his pocket and handed it to Bolen, certain that its pleading depiction of Tarnower as a faithless philanderer would win the defense's case.

Instead, the image of a cultivated, quietly suffering headmistress vanished when Bolen read the 11-page "Scarsdale letter" aloud. Pain and bitterness, which the defense had denied was compatible with her character, raged from its page. Harris wrote of her rival for Tarnower's affections, calling her "your whore" and "your adulterous slut." The rambling letter also spoke of Tarnower removing Harris from his will.

Because Harris had voluntarily testified about her March 10 telephone call, Bolen was free to produce the doctor's patient as a rebuttal witness. Juanita Edwards testified that she was with Tarnower when his phone rang that day. The doctor took the call in his office but left the examination room phone off the hook.

"Goddammit it, Jean, I want you to stop bothering me!"

Edwards could hear Tarnower shout angrily at a woman over the open line.

"You've lied and you've cheated!"

Edwards also heard Tarnower say,

"Well, you're going to inherit $240,000!"

Aurnou objected fiercely but to no effect. After more analytical haggling over the tissue found in Tarnower's chest wound, the defense rested. Judge Russell Leggett instructed the jurors that if they found Harris had intended to kill Tarnower at the moment she pulled the trigger, they could find her guilty of second-degree murder. If they decided that she had not intended to kill him, she could be found guilty of either second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.

Defense Goes for Broke and Loses

"Don't compromise!" Aurnou told the jury, confident that they would acquit his client completely. It was a disastrous supposition. The jury found Harris guilty of second-degree murder. When Judge Leggett pronounced the mandatory 15-years-to-life sentence, with no possibility of parole until the 15year minimum had been served, he asked if Harris had anything to say.

"I did not murder Dr. Tarnower," she answered.

"I loved him very much and I am innocent as I stand here. You and Mr. Bolen have arranged my life in such a way that I'll be in a cage for the rest of it, and with irons on my hands every time I go out."

She held up her hands as if they were manacled.

"That is not justice. It is a travesty of justice."

Some spectators applauded when she concluded her statement.

"You have had a fair trial," Judge Leggett replied, expressing regret that "the events of March 10" had ever taken place. The judge hoped that Harris would use her teaching talents to aid fellow prisoners.

Despite her defiant protests that she had been condemned by perjury and an immoral justice system, jurors later revealed that Harris' own testimony convicted her. During eight days of deliberations, the jury tried to re-create the scene in Tarnower's bedroom as Harris described it. They found no way that Tarnower could have been shot through the palm by trying to deflect the pistol from her temple. The jury also was impressed by her lack of any explanation for the other two bullet wounds in Tarnower's body.

Attorney Aurnou appealed for a reversal of the verdict, accusing one juror of possible bias and citing the presence of a police officer during Harris' phone call to a lawyer friend after the shooting. The officer later testified to overhearing Harris say, "Oh my God, I think I've killed Hy." Aurnou also argued that international press coverage had made a fair trial impossible and that the jury's attempt to re-create the shooting during deliberations had been improper.

Westchester County District Attorney Carl Vergari retorted that the "Scarsdale letter" had convinced the jury that Harris was "a liar and that the roots of her hatred for Dr. Tarnower ran to the marrow." Vergari called the letter "an X-ray of Mrs. Harris' state of mind as it existed on March 10" and faulted Aurnou's "go for broke" pursuit of a total acquittal instead of pursuing an "arguably valid defense of extreme emotional disturbance." Many observers including Judge Leggett, agreed that Harris might have gotten a shorter sentence or been acquitted if she had agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

An appeals court unanimously ruled that while Harris' trial was not perfect, it was fair. Judges noted that Aurnou himself had been lax in securing physical evidence. He had not asked for a change of venue and had participated in pretrial publicity. As to the jurors' conduct, the decision noted stonily that "the defendant would appear to be in no position to complain since, in defense counsel's summation, he twice invited the jurors to test Mrs. Harris's version in the deliberation room."

Relentless Appeals Finally Succeed

With the help of prominent sympathizers, Harris continued to appeal. In 1983 she lost a bid for a new trial on grounds that her testimony had been impaired by withdrawal from amphetamines supplied by Tarnower and that Aurnou had not properly explained the option of presenting a psychiatric defense. Appeals to the New York governor's office for clemency after serving half of her minimum sentence were rejected as premature. In 1992, a federal court ruled that the failure to raise a defense of "extreme emotional distress" was a tactical gamble on which Harris and Aurnou had agreed and lost, not a violation of her Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

Harris wrote two books about her life, her trial, and her prison experiences. She wanted the proceeds to benefit a charity for the children of convicts. The money was instead put in escrow by New York's Crime Victims Compensation Board. Under the state's "Son of Sam law," Harris was forbidden from directing profits gained by writing about her crime. Harris challenged the law. She lost her suit in New York courts, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court's 1991 ruling that the "Son of Sam law" was unconstitutional.

Harris was paroled from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in early 1993. After her release, she became a vocal advocate for the better treatment of female prisoners.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Alexander, Shana. Very Much A Lady. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983.

. "Matter of Integrity." People (March 9, 1981): 90ff.

Anderson, George M. "Women and Criminal Justice: An Interview with Jean Harris." America (March 18, 1995): 10.

Feron, James. "Jurors In Jean Harris Trial Re-enacted Night of Murder." New York Times, 26, 1981): Al, B1.

"Graduation Day." Time (January 11, 1993): 55.

Harris, Jean S. Stranger In Two Worlds. New York: Macmillan Co., 1986.

Jones, Ann. "Why Are We So Fascinated By the Harris Case?" New York Times (November 8, 1981): 24.

Trilling, Diana. Mrs. Harris. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.