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‘I can never be more grateful.’ After Nearly 35 Years, Willie Mae Harris Is Released From Prison

Harris, now 72 and blind, had been serving a life sentence for the shooting death of her husband, a man she said had abused her for years. Last month, the Arkansas Parole Board agreed to free her.

Willie Mae Harris, center, celebrates her release with her sister Dorothy, left, and niece Shunta.
Courtesy of Shunta Hall

‘I can never be more grateful.’ After Nearly 35 Years, Willie Mae Harris Is Released From Prison

Harris, now 72 and blind, had been serving a life sentence for the shooting death of her husband, a man she said had abused her for years. Last month, the Arkansas Parole Board agreed to free her.


Willie Mae Harris was released from an Arkansas prison today after spending nearly 35 years behind bars.  

Harris walked out of Wrightsville Women’s Facility at 9 a.m. local time wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey and matching face mask that had been crafted for the occasion. Harris, now 72 and blind, grabbed her daughter Mellowne Harris’s hand, and embraced her other daughter, Silvia Harris Wilkins, through sobs.

Harris was sentenced to prison for the 1985 shooting death of her husband, who she said had abused her for years. At the time, Wilkins was 14 and Mellowne was 5.

“I just wanted to get through the gates where my babies were,” Harris told The Appeal in a telephone call of the moments after her release. “I wanted to hear my babies’ voice as I walked out of the penitentiary. I was so excited.” 

“It didn’t hit me until she walked out,” Wilkins said. “My hair was standing up on my neck, my legs, my arms. I got weak.”

About 20 of Harris’s family members and friends gathered in a nearby church parking lot to celebrate before going to Cracker Barrel, where Harris ate country fried steak, mashed potatoes, and fried okra with a cup of orange juice. “The food was marvelous. I never thought it would be that good,” she said. 

Afterward, Harris traveled to Dallas, where she will live with her daughters. The family is planning a socially distanced fish fry for tomorrow that will be attended by relatives from Texas and Shreveport, Louisiana, Harris’s hometown. 

Harris will be on parole for 35 years, until the age of 107, according to her attorney. The Arkansas Parole Board agreed last month to release her after Governor Asa Hutchinson cleared the way earlier this year for her freedom by commuting her sentence and making her immediately eligible for parole. Harris had been petitioning for clemency since 1998. 

Since then, the parole board recommended her for release five times but no governor agreed. Hutchinson, who had denied Harris’s previous petition in 2015, cited evidence that Harris had been a victim of domestic abuse as one of “a lot of different reasons” he decided to grant her clemency.

Harris, whose case was chronicled by The Appeal last year, was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 after being convicted of first-degree murder. She had shot her husband, Clyde Harris, in January that year during an argument while in bed. He accused her her of having gonorrhea then attempted to have anal sex with her and pushed her, according to her trial testimony. She then pulled out a pistol she kept in her purse and started hitting him with it, Harris testified. At one point, the gun went off and the single shot killed Clyde. 

At trial, Harris told the jury that her husband’s death was a tragic accident preceded by years of abuse. “When I lie my head down, my husband was threatening to kill me,” she testified. “And I don’t really know what happened. You all believe me, I did not shoot my husband.”

Though there was evidence that could have proved the abuse, Harris’s attorneys, who were court-appointed, presented none of it. Harris was the only person who testified in her defense. 

Now that she is free, Harris plans to spend time with her family and pursue her passions. Among those, she said she will teach reading to children. While incarcerated, she taught hundreds of women how to read. Harris also said she is going to start a prison ministry in which she plans to visit prisons and share her story. 

“I can never be more grateful,” she said.

At times, Wilkins said she feared that her mother would never be freed. “In the beginning of all of this, 34 years ago, I thought I had lost her to the prison system forever but for the last five years I started seeing God’s work, he started putting the right people in her path and here the day is.”