Benjamin J. Harris III

Defense counsel made the prosecution's case

Benjamin J. Harris III was sentenced to death in 1985 for the murder of Jimmie Lee Turner, an automobile mechanic in Tacoma, Washington, the previous year. The prosecution alleged that Harris paid another man, Gregory Lee Bonds, to help kill Turner, and that each of them shot him. Bonds was acquitted, but Harris was convicted and sentenced to death.

Harris's conviction hinged on an uncorroborated confession he made at his lawyer's behest. Harris was emotionally disturbed and delusional at the time and apparently only fantasized that he committed the crime. There was no physical evidence linking either Harris or Bonds to the crime.

State courts denied Harris's appeals and, in 1989, he came within 12 days of execution before the receiving a stay that allowed him to seek a federal writ on habeas corpus.

In 1983, a federal district court granted the writ, holding that Harris had been denied effective assistance of counsel. The trial attorney failed to interview exculpatory witnesses and referred to his client in court as a womanizer, alcoholic, thief, and "liar 85% of the time." The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously upheld the district court in 1995.

Prosecutors dropped the charges, and Harris was released in 1997.

Case Data

Jurisdiction: Pierce County, Washington
Date of crime: June 14, 1984
Date of arrest: August 10, 1984
Charge: Aggravated first degree murder (contract murder)
Sentence: Death
Release date: August 23, 1997
Months wrongfully incarcerated: 156
Date of birth:
Age at time of arrest:
Defendant race: African American
Race of victim(s):
Defendant prior felony record:
Known factors leading to wrongful conviction: False confession, ineffective assistance of counsel, defendant's mental incompetence
Did an appellate court ever affirm conviction? Yes
Exonerated by: Dismissal of charges after reinvestigation
Compensation for wrongful imprisonment: Unknown

— Rob Warden