Teresa Deion Harris has been in prison in Tennessee for 17 years serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a murder she did not commit, the murder of Dennis Brooks Jr. in Huntingdon in 1993. Unless her sentence is commuted by Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee she will die in prison. The murderer was Walters Smothers, Deion’s boyfriend at the time. Deion was a reluctant witness to the unexpected murder. She was accorded such a severe sentence because the attorney for the state, General Gus R. Radford, persuaded the jury that Deion was a witch. Like Gaile Owens, the former battered wife whose death sentence was commuted on July 14 by Governor Phil Bredesen, Deion is a victim of the continuing mistreatment of women in Tennessee, in America.
Deion Harris’ story is both typical and extraordinary. It is an extraordinary example of the corruption of the criminal justice system in the US. It stands out and attracts attention because of some of its most unusually dramatic aspects. Deion is probably the only woman recently convicted for a murder she did not commit because the jury thought she was a witch. It is extraordinary that 7 years after her imprisonment Deion met and then married an upper middle class man who fell in love with her and became determined to free her and expose the injustice committed against her. Had this meeting not occurred Deion, like most other victims of the justice system falsely convicted of murder, would have died in prison (as she still may): voiceless, unknown, unappreciated, unloved.
What makes this story typically American is that Deion, a poor white girl from rural America with a high school education, was falsely imprisoned for murder although the evidence indicates she was guilty only of trying to save her own life. What makes it typical of red state America (and California) is that although Deion had not committed a murder she was held responsible for murder under the archaic and unjust “felony-murder rule.” What makes it typical of rural America is that the scapegoat was a poor white woman–“white trash.” Like increasing numbers of the non-rich in America Deion is a dispensable person in the eyes of the system. It is all too typical that Deion was accorded inadequate counsel for a capital crime–a lawyer who did not call to testify her strongest witnesses and who failed even to make a closing argument on her behalf. What makes it typical of rural red state America is that Deion was a very pretty girl-next-door type who was dominated as well as repeatedly raped and abused by males from the time she was a child until she was a young woman who got caught in the criminal justice system and then was abused again. This time by powerful white men who decided her fate—local attorneys who rallied to the support of her boyfriend, the murderer, one of the boys, while scapegoating Deion and pinning the rap for the murder upon her.
The attorney for the state General Gus Radford had charged Deion, and the other tag-along on the day of the murder, Stacy Ramsey, with felony-murder. Felony murder is a common law provision (outlawed in most states)which holds that the defendants may be charged and convicted of a murder if they are guilty of the felony that led to the murder.(In one famous case a woman was convicted of felony murder, although she was sitting in police car when the murder was committed by her partner.) Evidently Radford was afraid that persuading a jury that Deion had committed a felony might not be enough to persuade the jury to bring back a conviction for a capital crime, so he decided to go an extra mile and convince the jury that Deion was the instigator of the murder. Part of his “proof” that Deion was involved in the murder, besides being a witch, was the evidence that she had cooperated with the murderer in the cover-up, the disposal of the evidence. Deion did not deny she cooperated with Walter; she stated that she did so only because she feared that had she not cooperated, Walter would have killed her .
I first became aware of Teresa Deion Harris when watching an episode on TV in March 2010 of Prison Wives (Investigative Discovery TV), a series about women and men who married persons serving long prison sentences, often life terms. The show focused on the relationship of Deion Harris and the man who married her six years ago, retired airline pilot Captain Tim McDonald. Mr McDonald is the only man in America who is married to a woman prisoner he met and wed after her imprisonment although the analogous situation is not uncommon among women. McDonald met Deion in 2000 while doing prison research which he became involved in through a string of unusual circumstances At the time he was in his mid-50s and going through a mid-life crisis and divorce after 30 years of marriage. In 2003 McDonald married Deion (who is now 39) although he realized he might never be able to consummate the marriage–that his wife might spend the rest of her days, and his, in prison. Although the show did not discuss the trial at all, I found myself wondering: Why is this articulate and sensitive woman serving a life sentence for murder?
I wrote to Tim McDonald expressing my suspicion that Deion did not get a fair trial and wondering if she had appealed. Evidently both state and federal appeals had failed–Tim had doubts about the proficiency of Deion’s appeals lawyers. The first appeals lawyer appointed was a divorce lawyer. I asked Mr McDonald to send me some excerpts from the trial transcript. In addition, there is an excellent account of the trial written by local Tennessee journalist Jim Chandler whose objectivity was not compromised by his bias toward the State and against Deion.1 The best article about the whole episode with a focus on Deion was in the Nashville Scene, “To Have But Not to Hold” ( Sept. 27, 2007, http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/to-have-but-not-to-hold/Content?oid=1195241). As the title of the Nashville Scene article indicates McDonald’s marriage to Harris enabled her to attract publicity–and thus to expose the injustice. Clearly had Deion not met McDonald she would have had no opportunity to seek remedy for the injustice committed against her. In fact she did not even realize that there had been an injustice until McDonald, an urbane well traveled man raised near Seattle, helped her to view the past from a perspective larger than that of rural Tennessee. After reading excerpts from the trial transcript it was clear to me: Deion was the victim of a witch trial–in every sense of the term. Within a few weeks, I had joined the nascent campaign to free Deion Harris–at the time this consisted of McDonald and half a dozen others.
Deion had not had a happy life before the incident that landed her in prison for life. She was born in Western Tennessee. Her father was a school bus driver. Her mother suffered from crippling injuries due to an accident in her teenage years and she spent much of Deion’s life bedridden. Deion’s closest relationship was with her paternal grandmother who was killed in an automobile accident when Deion was in 7th grade. It was after this loss that Deion became depressed. She became addicted to alcohol and drugs by the time she was 15. She made her first suicide attempt when she was 14–she took an overdose of Tylenol. She was first sexually molested at 6 years old and repeatedly sexually abused and raped in the years that followed. Deion was angry at her mother for doing nothing to protect her from her male relatives–cousins and in-laws–who were responsible for much of the abuse.
Deion’s own boyfriends were mostly physical abusers. “My daughter was never involved with a man who did not abuse her,” Deion’s mother wrote the court. As a teenager she had been hospitalized several times for injuries inflicted upon her by her boyfriends. When Deion was 18 she made another suicide attempt–she slit her wrists.
She became involved with Walter Smothers when she ran into him in the town bar only two weeks before the murder. She recognized Walter–she had been raped by him several years before. Despite the inauspicious history, Walter became her live-in boyfriend immediately. If Deion had any hopes that Walter had changed, they were soon dispelled. She wrote in a document “Even though I had been previously raped by [Walter] he kept me supplied with drugs and alcohol and I began dating him… He claimed to have killed someone before and threatened to kill me while my kids watched if I ever resisted him. ”
The murder took place July 29 1993. The couple was smoking joints and drinking beer and whiskey with a neighbor, Stacy Ramsey. Walter got in an argument on the telephone with one of Deion’s ex-boyfriends, and decided to go over to his house and fight him. They all got into Stacy’s pick-up truck and went looking for him. Deion pretended to have forgotten his address because she was afraid of what Smothers might do to him. Stacy’s car broke down. It was decided that Deion would flag down a car for help.
Nineteen-year-old Dennis Brooks stopped his pick-up truck to help Deion. Walter and Ramsey came out of hiding. Walter threatened the driver Dennis Brooks with Stacy’s shotgun which had been in his truck and the trio hijacked Brooks and his truck. At one point, Smothers told Deion to hold the gun on Brooks while he changed his position in the truck. She held the gun for a several seconds and then gave it back to Smothers. Shortly thereafter, Walter lost his balance as the truck driven by Ramsey picked up speed and he accidentally fired the gun, which was pointed at Brooks, right into his hip.
As Brooks screamed in pain, Smothers agreed to take him to the hospital, a promise he later confessed he had no intention of keeping. As the truck approached a busy area Brooks screamed louder, hoping probably to be heard and rescued. Walter shot him in the head and turned to Deion and said, “I just blew his fuckin brains out.” Deion testified “I remember looking at Stacy and Stacy looked at me. We was both in shock. We didn’t know what was going on.” “I shot him because he was hollering,” Walter admitted to the court.
Walter then decided they had to dispose of the evidence. When the vehicle they intended to use to bury the body was unavailable, Walter, according to the testimony of all three parties, came up with the idea of dismembering the body. Walter claimed he thought that would be a more efficient way to dispose of the evidence (which was eventually set on fire), but there is no reason why that would be the case. Butchering the body evidently had a perverse appeal for Walter. It probably also occurred to Walter, who was very shrewd, that this ritual would make the others feel complicit in the murder, and thus less likely to talk to the police. Stacy and Walter drove the pick-up truck with the body to a remote area, with Deion following in her car. Deion testified she accompanied Walter because she was scared to defy him, “He had just killed somebody and he could kill me too.” Deion stood by while the two men dismembered the body.
When it was finished, Walter led the trio in a bizarre ritual over the body. Although this was hyped by the local press as devil worship, Walter had no history of participation in Satanic cults. The trio then drove to an empty field and set Brook’s corpse and pick-up truck on fire. Deion testified, “I was scared for my life and I was scared for my kids too. I thought maybe he might try to hurt my kids.”
When the police came to investigate the day after the murder, Smothers warned Deion not to “squeal.” Deion was terrified yet she courageously told the police that if they protected her from Walter she would tell them the whole story. Stacy Ramsey had already been visited by the police before they questioned Deion and he denied any knowledge about Brooks. Had Deion Harris not told the police what occurred, had she not led the police to evidence linking Walter Smothers to the crime–for example, Smothers’ bloody t-shirt–Walter might never have been discovered and caught. He might not have been arrested. He might have left town. He might have murdered again. The fact that the one person who was responsible for turning in the murderer was framed for the crime and given a sentence of life without parole gives one pause now to look back seventeen years later and ask: What went wrong?
The trial of Deion Harris did not conform to due process norms; it was a witch trial, in every sense of the term. After securing the approval of the victim’s father, District Attorney G. Robert Radford made a deal with the murderer, Walter Smothers: He would be spared the death penalty if he testified against Deion and Stacy. Deals are made with defendants to strengthen the State’s case when evidence is weak. But this deal was unnecessary: There was a plethora of forensic evidence, two witnesses against Smothers, and Smothers himself had already confessed. Even local reporter Jim Chandler, an admirer of Radford, wondered: “It was never addressed as to why, with so much condemning evidence… it was necessary to make a deal with the man who actually killed the victim.”2
After Radford had Smothers’ new testimony he indicted Ramsey and Harris for felony murder and Harris for first degree murder as well. (In the middle of Deion’s trial, Radford dropped the count of 1st degree murder; it was unnecessary to procure a death sentence for Deion.) But what could Walter Smothers say to implicate an innocent woman? After the deal, Smothers changed the testimony he had given to the police on many points. Before the deal Smothers stated he asked Deion to stop a car when Ramsey’s truck broke down. This was what both Stacy and Deion had also told the police. Deion testified, “I thought I was just getting us a ride.” After the deal Walter claimed he had actually had a discussion with Deion and Stacy to plan hijacking the car and the driver. This new testimony enabled Radford to charge Deion and Stacy with “felony-murder”(auto theft, kidnapping).
Walter also told the Court that he had warned Stacy and Deion before she agreed to stop a driver that “we might have to kill someone.” He had said nothing about such a warning in his original confession, and neither Deion nor Stacy recalled any such warning. The warning that Smothers now claimed he gave Deion provided Radford with “evidence” to argue that Deion was “premeditating” murder–and thus it enabled Radford to indict Deion for 1st degree murder. In his altered testimony Walter also now claimed that the gun was still in Deion’s hands–she was passing it to Walter–when it accidentally misfired. Walter’s original statement was in accord with Deion’s: He was holding the gun when it misfired. Deion did not have her hand on the gun. This change made Deion guilty of the first shooting as well.
Radford’s star witness in court against Deion (and Stacy) was the murderer himself whose new testimony saved his life. There were only two other “eye-witnesses” who testified. This was a couple who lived in a house near where Brooks was abducted. They heard Deion aggressively scream at the victim to get down. (Deion said she did this because she was afraid Walter would kill him.). Why would Radford make such a deal with the murderer and why would he believe the altered testimony of a man whose life depended upon implicating his two friends and diminishing his own responsibility for what occurred? Or did Radford believe it? It is notable that Smothers’ testimony did not just become more detailed–it was revised in such a way as to provide new evidence to sustain the charges against Deion and Stacy. It was as if he had been coached by someone with knowledge of the law. By his lawyer? By Radford?
No one knows why Radford made the deal with Smothers, evidently negotiated by Smothers’ lawyer. The sentiment in town was against leniency. Chandler noted that “[t]he cold-blooded and grisly manner of young Brooks’ murder generated a lot of anger throughout the entire county.” “Many people would have enjoyed seeing the trio dragged out of jail and lynched.” We don’t know what influence Walter’s lawyer was able to bring to bear upon Smothers. Or what influence was exerted by Walter’s family who united behind him immediately. Or for that matter what infuence upon Radford did Walter’s father-in-law and protector, a Huntingdon policeman, have? Maybe Radford sympathized with Walter Smothers. Maybe he disliked Deion, maybe he hated women–or at least “poor white trash.” During the trial Radford oozed contempt for poor Deion Harris.
Radford had to face an election in 1994. How could he justify giving the murderer a deal — how could he justify rescuing Walter from facing a jury that would determine his sentence? According to Chandler many in the community were “infuriated” by the deal. Everyone in the community was watching–the local media rapaciously covered the murder and the trial. To rationalize the deal to the community, and perhaps to himself, Radford had to diminish Smothers’ guilt for the murder, which he did by depicting Deion as a demon and placing the primary moral and legal responsibility for the murder upon her.
It was not enough for Radford to argue that Deion was a collaborator–he demonized her and imbued her with supernatural powers. He recycled the ancient misogynist trope of the witch–without using the word of course. In his closing argument he made an effort to make Walter look as likeable as possible–he depicted him as Deion’s reluctant uxorious dupe. Even Stacy’s attorney was deceived. He described Deion as “the general of the army” and Smothers as “her lieutenant.”
Attorney General G. Robert Radford told the jury in his closing argument that Smothers was under the spell of Deion. Radford implied that Deion had instigated the murder. No motive was given. No motive was needed–she was just bad, evil to the bone. Smothers had confessed that it was his idea to dismember the body–supposedly in order to hide the evidence. And Smothers agreed that Deion took no part in actually dismembering the body. But Smothers said that during the ritual dismemberment Deion who was observing suddenly said “I want his heart.” And Smothers said she had a preternaturally (my word) evil “look” in her eyes. In his closing argument Radford stated, “I don’t know that look. You haven’t seen that look. We’ll just have to take Mr Smothers word for that and I suggest to you that you can.” Why did the jury have to take the murderer’s word for anything and why should they trust a person who was lying to save his life? But the jury did, or more precisely they took Mr Radford’s word for it, as he was the one they trusted, he was the one who vouched for Smothers.
Deion and Stacy, and originally Walter, had told a different story. They agreed that dismembering the body was Smothers’ idea. Deion said Walter chopped off one leg and then handed the axe to Ramsey and ordered him to chop off the other one too. Deion said it was also Smothers idea to remove the victim’s heart. “He handed it to me and told me to drink the blood,” she said weeping. “I put it to my mouth and acted like I drank the blood.” She dropped it on the road. Smothers picked it up and drank blood from it (or pretended to), then passed it to Ramsey and told him to drink.
But Walter’s story was different and Radford assured the jury that Walter’s story was “the truth.” How did he know? Because Walter had promised Radford that he would tell “the truth.” Walter said Deion had demanded the heart and Attorney Radford assured the jury that was the way it was. Radford stated, “And he did it. [He gave Deion the heart.] If Deion wanted it, he’d do it. And he cuts out Dennis Brooks Jr’s heart. And Teresa Harris then takes it in her hands, holds it up, kisses it, sucks on it, whatever.” Radford then asked the jury rhetorically, “Who is in control of this situation, ladies and gentlemen? Who is at the center of the whole thing?” By the whole thing he made it clear he meant everything–the felonies, the murder. Radford answered his own question: Teresa Deion Harris. Radford had deceptively transferred the responsibility for the murder, for everything, from Smothers to Deion. Radford’s argument went unanswered: Deion’s attorney was evidently so intimidated by Radford’s closing argument that he said he had decided he was not going to make a closing argument!
Radford managed to deny the reality of Deion Harris, a confused submissive young woman who had been dominated, physically and sexually abused by men her entire life, who had a drug habit as well as the poor judgment and bad luck to get involved with a psychopathic murderer, a poor woman who was terrified and appalled when she saw her boyfriend kill a man. Instead Radford created a fiction and convinced the jury and himself of its truth: Deion Harris, a demonic powerful evil woman who was herself responsible for the murder of Dennis Brooks Jr. Radford told the jury not to be fooled by Deion’s pretty face and innocent veneer. Radford pointed at Deion as she sat there crying and said, “See her for who she is. See her for what’s on her insides… See her for a mean, vicious murdering woman.” Radford asked the jury for the death penalty for Deion. The jury was prepared to give her the death penalty but they were dissuaded by the father of the victim who asked for mercy. So they gave her life without the possibility of parole.
Radford had been a lawyer for decades. Anyone with common sense knew that Walter Smothers had a motive to lie. When Radford told the jury Smothers had no reason to lie, Radford was lying. I maintain that General Gus R. Radford deliberately–unethically and illegally–suborned the perjury of Walter Smothers and framed Teresa Deion Harris and Stacy Ramsey for the murder of Dennis Brooks. And it worked; the community of Huntingdon insists to this day that all of defendants are equally guilty of the murder.
Walter Smothers not only took the life of Dennis Brooks Jr in 1992. After that evil deed, he destroyed the lives of Deion Harris and Stacy Ramsey who were framed for murder and caged for life without possibility of parole, just like the murderer himself. Smothers said in jail before the deal was made, “If I go down I’m taking them all with me.” And so he did. He took them all down–with the help of the attorney for the state of Tennessee, General Gus Robert Radford. And the town of Huntingdon accepted this excuse and adopted the myth that three people killed Dennis Brooks. The truth is that one person, Walter Smothers, killed Dennis Brooks and he never had to face a sentencing hearing for his crime.
One year after the trial Smothers wrote to Deion admitting that he had lied to the court, and that on the night of the murder he had indeed threatened them with a gun: “Sorry about the state’s evidence from me, but I would have fried. Now I’m ready to make amends… You and Stacy said I held a gun on ya’ll. Well, I did. If there is anything I can say or tell your lawyers that might help…” (Chandler also concluded from the evidence that Walter had threatened Stacy with a gun.) When the time came for Smothers to help, to testify to the appeals court, he changed his mind. He told the judge he had nothing to say and that the letter to Deion was his way of getting out of prison for a day to “come to court, see the countryside.” Perhaps someone had reminded Walter that the deal he had made with Radford stated that if he ever changed his testimony he could be tried for murder.
A few weeks ago there was a breakthrough in the case. WeTV broadcast a show about Deion in its series Women Behind Bars which provided startling new information confirming that Ms Harris was innocent. In a candid interview with Walter Smothers, Smothers admitted to the TV interviewer that he had been considering killing Deion and Stacy after he killed Dennis Brooks Jr for fear that one of them would “squeal” to the police! This clearly contradicted the State’s argument that Deion instigated the murder. It indicated that, contrary to Radford, Smothers did not perceive Deion and Stacy as dependable allies; he knew they might turn him in. Smothers also revealed to the TV interviewer that he was thinking of killing the policeman who was pursuing him for speeding after the murder; fortunately the policeman was unable to catch up with him. Here is further confirmation that Deion had good reason to fear that she would be killed if she defied Smothers, as she told the jury. Contrary to Mr Radford, Deion did not have Smothers under her spell. Deion was dominated and abused by Walter as she was dominated abused and betrayed by Gus Radford as the representative of the people and State of Tennessee.
Anyone who saw Women Behind Bars could not help but notice the difference between Smothers and Harris as they appear today. Smothers showed no guilt about the murder. Deion is still plagued by guilt almost 2 decades later. This should not surprise anyone who had been paying attention. Deion had been a drug addict (with a history of sexual abuse), not a psychopath like Mr Smothers. The psychiatrist, Dr Morson, who examined Deion in 1994, before her trial, had written that she was “a person who felt guilty about associating with the wrong people and who felt great remorse at the senseless death of the victim, remorse so great that she had repeated thoughts of ending her own life.” (Ms Harris’ public defender did not even call Dr Morson as a witness before the jury convicted Deion–another instance of his irresponsibility as her attorney.) In fact after this interview Ms Harris tried to commit suicide–twice before her trial. Deion’s remorse was not because she had abetted the murder, she had not done so, but because she had been helpless to stop it..
I hope the people of Huntingdon of Tennessee have the courage to re-examine the facts in the light of what was revealed on the TV show Women Behind Bars. There is little evidence that this will happen. Shirley Nanney, editor of the Huntingdon newspaper repeated on Women Behind Bars the opinion she had expressed to Nashville Scene–that Deion and Stacy Ramsey were as guilty as Walter Smothers. Huntingdon listens to the voice of authority and that voice was DA Radford. Deion Harris has now served over 17 years in prison for a murder she did not commit, a murder she would have prevented had it been within her power. She was framed by General Gus Radford and Walter Smothers. (Stacy Ramsey is also an innocent scapegoat.) Ms Harris should be rewarded at long last for the service she provided to the people of Tennessee in helping to put Walter Smothers behind bars before he murdered another person. The Brooks family in particular owes a debt of gratitude to Teresa Deion Harris for turning in the murderer of their loved one. I think that the best way the Brooks’ family could now honor the memory of Dennis Brooks Jr is by asking the Governor to commute Ms Harris sentence, to free her from prison at long last.
Please sign the petition from residents of America to Governor Bredesen of Tennessee asking him to commute the sentence of Deion Harris.