A Russell County jury announced unanimously that they will not recommend the death penalty for James Allen Harrison Jr., a man convicted a second time earlier this week of slaughtering Thomas Fred Day Jr. during a Jan. 13, 1998 robbery.
If the sentence stands, Harrison will face life without parole in a yet undetermined prison for his capital murder conviction. Judge Albert Johnson ordered a routine sentence investigation after the jury's recommendation and will give the final sentence on Aug. 22.
Defense Attorney Walter Gray said the recommended sentence is a relief to both Harrison's family and to the defense, who hoped to lessen Harrison's charges to murder with intent and first degree theft before the jury's verdict Tuesday.
"The big thing for us is at this point is he's off of death row," Gray said. "Judge Johnson could still override the decision, although I don't believe he would do that under any circumstances presented in this case."
In order for Johnson to reject the jury's recommendation, Gray said Johnson would have to find evidence of several other convictions, arrests or cases pointing to a history of violence that the jury could not consider during the trial.
Harrison was arrested three days after he beat Day and sliced his throat during a robbery, during which he took several electronics, compact discs and Day's car from the victim's 1707 18th Avenue home, according to earlier testimony. Police later discovered Harrison hocked $400 worth of Day's possessions and attempted to sell Day's car to the sister of a man who made cocaine runs for him.
Harrison was granted a retrial after his 2001 death penalty sentence because an investigation found two jurors had not disclosed potential prejudices in the case, Gray said.
"I know one of the individuals that was selected on the previous jury had failed to disclose she was the victim of an armed robbery," Gray said. "I believe it was two or three times that she was the victim of an armed robbery."
During the trial, District Attorney Ken Davis told the jury Day's throat was cut "literally from ear to ear"; his nose was fractured twice and larynx smashed. Day's wound gaped so severely in crime scene photos that the back of Day's throat was visible. Davis argued Harrison committed the act so he could get money for crack cocaine.
"He is here not because of what someone else did to him — certainly not what Fred Day did to him. He is here because of deliberate actions to take everything from Fred Day," Davis said.
Gray credited their victory Thursday in part to strong testimony given Wednesday by University of Alabama Sociology Professor Joanne J. Terrell, a forensic social worker who assists in death penalty mitigation. That practice — presenting testimony and documentation that pieces together the suspect's life before their crime — is a recent development that has vastly improved death row candidates' chances, Gray said.
"At that point, during the first trial, a lot of the cases involving mitigation didn't exist," Gray said. "We weren't able to present a lot of the information. We didn't have a mitigation expert like we did in this case that was able to determine all the factors involving the schooling and a lot of the abuse."
Terrell and Harrison's siblings outlined a lifetime of physical, mental and sexual abuse the Russell County convict suffered years prior to Day's murder Wednesday. Harrison's battered psyche, Defense Attorney Jeremy Armstrong argued, most likely snapped the day of the murder under years of sexual torture and emotional abuse.
"I've handled a lot of death penalty cases, and I'm sorry for the Day family. These cases are hard," he told the jury Wednesday. "But we've got two sets of victims here. James has to live with the fact of knowing he killed Fred Day Jr. He has to live with that every day until he takes his last breath."
Davis countered that Harrison deserved the death penalty despite the years of abuse. The Harrison family, he said, was not the only one who had suffered.
"He chose a disabled person to not just murder, but torture. The only thing he's remorseful for is that he got caught," Davis said. "When you're back there, if you shed a tear for James Harrison, shed a tear for Fred Day Jr."
After the sentence hearing, Davis told the Ledger-Enquirer he expected the jury would rule for life without parole because the defense had no burden to prove their claims of abuse.
"As far as the prosecution is concerned, it's like bringing a knife to a gun fight," Davis said. "The defense can say whatever they want."
Harrison will stay in the Russell County Jail until his sentencing date on Aug. 22. Gray said the defendant is in poor health, however, and may have to be hospitalized before long.
"He had a stroke recently and his leg has been swollen throughout the trial process," Gray said. "But he wanted to see this process through. He didn't want to hold up this process since he had gotten so far."