CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA – A man who spent 25 years in prison for an Iowa murder that he did not commit urged college students Tuesday to listen to and help inmates who say they are not guilty.
Terry Harrington recounted how he was wrongly arrested in the 1977 shooting death of a car dealership security guard in Council Bluffs when he was a teenager from neighboring Omaha, Nebraska. Police had argued that Harrington killed the guard while trying to steal a car, based largely on testimony from other teenagers who were given plea agreements. Harrington had an alibi and maintained his innocence, saying he hadn’t even heard of the slaying until he was arrested. But jurors convicted him in 1978.
By the 1990s, Harrington had exhausted his legal appeals and was serving a life sentence at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison when he met a prison barber who believed in his innocence and agreed to help.
“At a certain point everybody gave up on me. There’s nothing they can do,” he said. But Harrington said the barber listened to his story after trimming his beard one day and started investigating on her own.
One of his attorneys, Tom Frerichs, said it was Harrington’s first public comments since Harrington and co-defendant Curtis McGhee, who also spent 25 years in prison, reached a $6.2 million legal settlement with Council Bluffs in 2013. That deal required Harrington and his lawyers “to refrain from any disparagement or criticism” of the Council Bluffs Police Department. Pottawattamie County, which prosecuted the men, had agreed to pay $12 million to settle in 2010.
Harrington said students can help inmates conduct legal research and provide other support to show they care.
His freedom came after the barber obtained Council Bluffs police records that showed investigators for 20 years had withheld evidence showing that a man seen in the area with a shotgun and a dog had been a strong suspect in the slaying. The man had been in an altercation with the security guard days earlier, dog prints were found at the scene, the man later failed a polygraph and had been a suspect in a prior unsolved homicide, court records show.
Based on the new information, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned Harrington’s conviction in 2003. He left prison pending a retrial after Gov. Tom Vilsack signed a reprieve. Eventually, witnesses who had implicated Harrington recanted their testimony, saying they had been coerced and threatened by officers.
“One lady made a difference in my life,” Harrington, now 60, told students at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. “Every criminal justice student in here can make a difference in somebody’s life. There are people in prison right now who need help.”
Harrington said he cried every night in prison but never gave up his “burning desire” for freedom, promising himself that he would not die behind bars.
“The justice system across this country is fractured. You can’t lose faith in it but you can’t put all your faith in it,” he said. “Some things happen for no reason at all.”
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