TENNESSEE JUSTICE -- THE SCAPEGOATING OF TERESA DEION HARRIS
Seth Farber, Ph.D.
Teresa Deion Harris has been in prison in Tennessee for 17 years, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a murder she did not commit, the murder of Dennis Brooks Jr. I first became aware of Teresa Deion Harris when watching an episode on TV in March of Prison Wives (Investigative Discovery TV), a series about women and men who married persons serving long prison sentences, often life terms. The show focused on the relationship of Deion Harris and the man who married her six years ago, retired airline pilot Captain Tim McDonald. Mr McDonald is the only man who is married to a woman-prisoner he met and wed after her imprisonment, although the analogous situation is not uncommon among women. Although the show focused on Tim and Deion's relationship, I found myself wondering: Why is this woman in prison?
I wrote to Tim McDonald expressing my suspicion that Deion did not get a fair trial. Mr McDonald sent me some excerpts from the trial transcript and referred me to an article in the Nashville Scene, "To Have But Not to Hold" ( Sept. 27, 2007, online). After reading this material it became clear to me that the attorney for the state G. Robert Radford had framed Deion, and the other tag- along Stacy Ramsey, for the murder of Dennis Brooks Jr -- and used the real murderer Walter Smothers as his star witness in his case against Ms Harris.
A few weeks ago WeTV broadcast a show about Deion in its series Women Behind Bars which provided startling new information -- including a candid interview with Walter Smothers— confirming that Ms Harris was innocent. Smothers admitted to the TV interviewer that he had been considering killing Deion, his girlfriend and Stacy, his neighbor, after he killed Dennis Brooks Jr for fear that one of them would "squeal" to the police! This clearly contradicts the State's argument that Deion instigated the murder. Smothers also revealed to the TV interviewer that he was thinking of killing the policeman who was pursuing him for speeding after the murder -- fortunately the policeman was unable to catch up with him. After he shot Dennis Brooks, Smothers turned to Deion and proclaimed, "I just blew his fuckin brains out." One does not have to be a psychologist, as I have been for 25 years, to realize that Walter Smothers was a dangerous man. Deion had good reason to fear that she would be killed if she defied Smothers --as she told the jury.
In order to stay alive Deion had to help dispose of the body as Smothers ordered. She had to participate in Smothers' sick twisted ritual with the body. A year after the trial Smothers wrote to Deion admitting that he had lied to the court, and that on the night of the murder he had indeed threatened them with a gun: "Sorry about the state's evidence from me, but I would have fried. Now I'm ready to make amends...You and Stacy said I held a gun on ya'll. Well -- I did. If there is anything I can say or tell your lawyers that might help..." But when the time came for Smothers to help, to testify to the appeals court he chickened out. He told the judge he had nothing to say and that the letter to Deion was his way of getting out of prison for a day to "come to court, see the countryside."
When the police came to investigate the day after the murder, Smothers warned Deion not to "squeal." Deion was scared -- during their brief relationship Walter had threatened to kill her once before if she ever crossed him. Yet she courageously told the police that if they protected her from Walter she would tell them the whole story. Stacy Ramsey had already been visited by the police before they questioned Deion and he denied knowledge of the murder. Had Deion Harris not told the police what occurred, had she not led the police to evidence linking Walter Smothers to the crime -- for example, Smothers' bloody t-shirt -- the murderer might never have been discovered and caught. He might have left town. He might not have been arrested. (Police are not perfect.) The fact that the one person who was responsible for turning in the murderer was framed for the crime and given a sentence of life without parole reflects an egregious miscarriage of justice.
The trial of Deion Harris did not conform to due process norms -- it was a witch trial, in every sense of the term. Smothers testified against Deion and told the jury that Deion instigated the murder, that she cast an evil spell on him. Attorney General G. Robert Radford told the jury that Smothers could not be fully blamed for the murder -- he was under the spell of Deion. Radford pointed at Deion and told the jury not to be fooled by her pretty face. He pointed to Deion crying and said, "See her for what's on her insides....See her for a mean, vicious murdering woman." Radford told the jury that they could trust Smothers was telling "the truth"-- that he had no motivation to lie to the Court. The hanging jury believed this incredible claim. Common sense indicates that Smothers had every reason to lie -- he knew, as he indicated in his letter to Deion, that if he had not come up with a good story he would have "fried." Attorney General Radford asked the jury for the death penalty for Deion. The jury wanted to give her the death penalty but they were swayed by the father of the victim who asked for mercy.
During the last several years Tim McDonald has succeeded in attracting national publicity to Deion's case. Many Huntingdon residents have written online or spoken on television to express their anger at Mr McDonald for not letting sleeping dogs lie -- the common opinion is that Ms Harris should be grateful that she was given life imprisonment. Shirley Nanney, editor of the Huntingdon newspaper repeated on Women Behind Bars the opinion she had expressed to Nashville Scene--that Deion and Stacy Ramsey were as guilty as Walter Smothers. On May 7 Jeremy Brooks, the brother of the victim Dennis Brooks Jr, wrote on the Joy Behar blog that since Deion was "involved in the killing of someone's child and they will never speak to that child again... [m]aybe it would be fair if she killed herself and her kids never get to speak to her again?"
Anyone who saw Women Behind Bars could not help but notice the difference between Smothers and Harris as they appear today. Smothers showed no guilt about the murder. Deion is still plagued by guilt almost 2 decades later. This should not surprise anyone who had been paying attention. Deion had been a drug addict (with a history of sexual abuse), not a psychopath like Mr Smothers. The psychiatrist, Dr Morson, who examined Deion in 1994, before her trial, had written that she was "a person who felt guilty about associating with the wrong people and who felt great remorse at the senseless death of the victim, remorse so great that she had repeated thoughts of ending her own life." In fact after this interview Ms Harris tried to commit suicide --twice before her trial. Deion's remorse was not because she had abetted the murder -- she had not done so -- but because she had been helpless to stop it. (Ms Harris' incompetent or corrupt public defender did not even call Dr Morson as a witness before the jury convicted Deion.
Why did the Attorney General seek the death penalty for Deion Harris but not for Walter Smothers? Let me be clear: I am opposed to the death penalty for religious and ethical reasons. ( Jesus said "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, ‘Do not repay evil with evil.' ") But my opposition to the death penalty does not prevent me from wondering why so many persons in Tennessee who support the death penalty do not seem bothered that the death penalty was sought by the state for the wrong person, but not for the real murderer.
I hope the people of Huntingdon of Tennessee have the courage to re-examine the facts in the light of what was revealed on the TV show Women Behind Bars. Deion Harris has served over 17 years in prison for a murder she did not commit, a murder she would have prevented had it been within her power. Ms Harris should be rewarded at long last for the service she provided to the people of Tennessee in helping to put Walter Smothers behind bars before he murdered another person. The Brooks family in particular owes a debt of gratitude to Teresa Deion Harris for turning in the murderer of their loved one. I think that the best way the Brooks' family could now honor the memory of Dennis Brooks Jr is by asking the Governor to commute Ms Harris sentence, to free her from prison at long last.
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