Silvia Harris, the daughter of 72-year-old blind inmate Willie Mae Harris, now in her 34th year of a life sentence, was never called to testify at her mother's 1985 murder trial in Lafayette County.
No witness, other than Willie herself, appeared on her behalf.
Then just 14, Silvia, now 48, says she prays daily that her mother, known to many as "Miss Willie," will be freed by a clemency petition now on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's desk. He has until April to make a decision.
I tracked Silvia down in Dallas, where she lives and works in the finance department of a furniture company, wanting to hear how she would have testified if given that chance more than three decades ago.
Willie Mae, who is black and became blind in prison, was charged with the first-degree murder of her husband, Clyde, and was initially offered a plea deal--20 years but out in 13 for good behavior. The mother of two refused to admit to a crime she insists she didn't intentionally commit.
A number of witnesses were available but never summoned to testify about the years of physical and mental abuse Clyde inflicted on Willie.
Instead of convicting Willie for manslaughter or negligent homicide (which she still admits to), the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder, leading to a life sentence.
The shooting occurred in their home in Bradley after 17 days of Clyde's escalating domestic violence. At trial she testified that she truly believed Clyde had grown increasingly insane, especially around all the guns he kept in their bedroom, strangely "acting like a baby" while continually waving them around.
Then came Jan. 30, 1985, about 1:30 a.m. after yet another bedtime argument. In an immediate and angry response--fueled by sleep and food deprivation--to Clyde's persistent effort to sodomize Willie, she grabbed for a gun she kept for self-protection in her purse beside the bed, court records show.
Out of frustration (and admitted negligence), Willie remembered rising to her knees in bed and repeatedly striking Clyde with the .25 caliber automatic handgun. A single shot suddenly fired, traveling through the covers to penetrate his chest. Gunshot-residue tests reinforced that scenario.
Willie has maintained from that evening on that she sincerely loved Clyde despite his abuse and never intended to intentionally shoot him.
Silvia created a scene in the courtroom after learning she wouldn't be allowed to testify because she was "too young."
She told me she heard everything from an adjoining bedroom on the night her father died. She said they had been loudly arguing yet again and, as she lay in bed listening to their words, "I heard mother say, 'No, Clyde. I told you no!'"
Suddenly, there was a single shot and she leapt up and went into her parent's bedroom. Her mother screamed for Silvia to go to the neighbors for help since they had no telephone. An ambulance and police arrived shortly thereafter.
"I know she didn't mean to shoot him," said Silvia. "It was obvious. It happened so fast and accidentally. My sister and I also loved our father," she continued, "and so did our mother. But he was continually abusive to her, mentally and physically.
"There was just so much abuse. I recall one time years earlier when he grabbed a pipe and hit her hand so hard that he broke it." Silvia said Clyde wasn't nearly as abusive to her or her sister, but had a mean streak amplified by substances and routinely treated their mother as if she was "beneath him." Willie reportedly was hospitalized another time for a ruptured ear drum after an argument.
"Through all the terrible mistreatment our mother endured, she kept forgiving him, because like us, she really did love him. But still, in many ways being with him for her was like being in prison."
Silvia now has six children and 15 grandchildren who have never met their grandmother. She and her family are ready to take Willie in if and when she is released, saying, "The doors here are open for her." Until then, Silvia has gotten by for years with hearing her mother's wisdom through two weekly phone calls from the prison at prescribed times.
"It's time for her to come home to family," Silvia said, her voice quivering. "She's been through enough, going blind in prison years ago and after many years of selflessly helping so many of her fellow inmates through heading literacy programs.
"I'm telling the truth that our father's death really was an accident. I know. I was right there. And she has paid a full and terrible price for that tragic moment. She is not a potential threat to anyone."
I agree with Silvia, as do many many others across our state who are writing the governor's office on Willie's behalf. I sent my letter last week.
This aging mother, existing in a dark world for so many years, has lived a life filled with unimaginable tribulation. Enough is indeed enough when it come to paying her dues.
Let's hope our governor agrees.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]
Editorial on 02/09/2020