A man defended by Amnesty International and showcased by the Soviet Union as a victim of American racism walked out of the prison Monday where he spent 14 years on death row.
Johnny Harris, 45, slipped by reporters with little comment about 9:50 a.m. EDT, 10 minutes before officials at St. Clair Correctional Facility said he would be released.Greeted by his lawyer and the girlfriend he met when she was working on one of his appeals, the casually clad Harris answered only one question from reporters asking what he wanted to do now.
"Leave here," Harris said as he got into his lawyer's car and sped away.
Harris left the prison after more than 20 years behind bars, 14 of them on death row for the stabbing of a prison guard during a riot in the Fountain Correctional Center near Atmore, Ala.
Harris originally was sentenced to five life terms for robbery and rape, but he was sentenced to die under a 129-year-old law that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Harris drew worldwide attention in the 1970s when Amnesty International defended him as a victim of racism because he was convicted by all-white juries. Harris pleaded guilty to one rape and four robberies, but Amnesty International and like groups claimed he had inept representation and was victimized by a white-dominated system.
Harris's murder conviction was dismissed in 1987, and he was unanimously granted parole on his other convictions May 6. However, parole board Director Elmo Graves said Harris will be strictly supervised for life.
Defense attorney Ruth Bourquin speculated on the notoriety of Harris's case.
"I think it was just a combination of circumstances, also the force of his personality," she said. "As soon as people meet him, that comes through. He's not typical."