Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced today his intention to commute the life sentence of Willie Mae Harris, which would make her immediately eligible for parole.
She received a life sentence in Lafayette County in 1985 for killing her husband and her case has become a cause for many. She is 72 and blind.
She contended the shooting of her abusive husband was an accident and refused a plea deal that would have released her from prison after 13 years. The parole board five times recommended her for clemency, but no governor until now has been willing to follow the recommendation. In 2018, a board appointed by Hutchinson declined to recommend clemency.
Today, in a brief notice, the governor said he intended to commute her sentence. He said there were no law enforcement objections to her release from the Wrightsville unit. There is a 30-day public response period before such decisions are final.
The Appeal wrote this extensive article about the case in late 2019. It quoted her clemency attorney Lee Eaton:
Two of the five parole board recommendations for Willie’s release reviewed by The Appeal noted that she was a victim of domestic violence. Others acknowledged her strong family ties and work as a tutor teaching hundreds of incarcerated people how to read. But in April, when they were considering Willie’s most recent petition, just two of the seven parole board members recommended a hearing, and her application was deemed “without merit.”
“Weapon used/death of victim,” was noted as one reason for the board’s decision, along with a checkmark beside “sentence is not excessive.”
The parole board’s decision left Eaton, Willie’s attorney, aghast. “For me to talk about Willie case to anyone, they get all these different pieces and are like, ‘Oh my God, why is she still there?” she said.
When the governor announced his decision today, he said, according to KTHV:
“She had 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.”