Willie Mae Harris, 72, granted parole 3 decades after she was jailed for 140 years for killing abusive husband

Willie Mae Harris, 72, granted parole 3 decades after she was jailed for 140 years for killing abusive husband
(Arkansas Department of Correction)

A 72-year-old woman from Arkansas has been granted parole after she was sentenced to jail for 140 years for killing her physically abusive husband. Willie Mae Harris, who has already served 34 years of her life sentence at Wrightsville Women's Facility in Arkansas, was convicted in 1985 and charged with first-degree murder.

Governor Asa Hutchinson, in March this year, had announced that he intended to commute Harris' sentence. He made the announcement in an email, explaining that he intended to grant 14 pardons, two firearm restorations and two commutations. The parole board reportedly recommended Harris' release at least five times since 1988, however, no governor agreed to commute her sentence until Hutchinson's announcement.

Hutchinson recommended commuting her sentence from life imprisonment to making her "immediately parole eligible". The septuagenarian's request for parole was approved on Wednesday, May 20, and she will be freed within 45 days according to state law. Although Harris received a 140-year prison sentence, she has always maintained her innocence. 

Harris, who became blind while serving her prison sentence, said in her trial testimony that her husband Clyde Harris, in January 1985, accused her of giving him a sexually transmitted infection, attempted to have anal sex with her, and then called her names and "slung her around." Harris added that in an attempt to defend herself, she pulled out a gun from her purse and began hitting Clyde with it. The gun went off and a single shot accidentally killed him. 

"She said she knelt over Clyde, who was lying down, hit him with the gun, and the gun fired," the state Supreme Court opinion said. While recalling her relationship with Clyde, Harris in her testimony, said that he would often threaten to kill her and was physically abusive. Harris, in her appeals, said that her husband acted insanely and every night "he would go through a transformation" and would threaten to kill her.

Governor Hutchinson, in March, acknowledged that there was evidence of physical abuse in Harris' case. He said: "She's been a victim of domestic violence for a long period of time [and] there was evidence of that. She proclaimed her innocence, but for a lot of reasons, I granted clemency to Willie Mae Harris," stated a Daily Mail report. 

The Appeal, a criminal justice publication, which has written multiple articles about Harris' release, recently spoke to the 72-year-old's daughter Silvia Harris Wilkins, who said that she was overjoyed by the decision. "My biggest fear was burying my mother in prison," Silvia said. "Just to know that I don't have to do that and she's coming home is such a relief." Reports state that Harris will be moving to Texas to live with her daughter and her sister.

Along with Harris, Governor Hutchinson also decided to commute the sentence of non-violent drug offender Robert R Johnson. Johnson received a 86-year sentence based on multiple drug offenses. The governor noted that Johnson's five convictions stemmed from a single period in early 2008, adding that he did not have a prior record of convictions before that year.

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