With a college degree in hand and a healthy outlook on the future, Nicole Harris envisioned in December 2004 that she was on the brink of something big. As the single mother of two young sons, her college graduation was fostered by a network of family members and supporters whose pride in her accomplishments seemed endless. With a degree in psychology she hoped to land a job in her chosen field, and a subsequent move back to her hometown of Chicago would allow her to rejoin her family as well as explore opportunities for employment in her discipline. A few months after graduating, however, her plans for the future went terribly awry. The attainment of a college degree suddenly became a secondary treasure as she found herself charged in the strangulation death of her youngest son, Jaquari, age 4.
Harris steadily maintained her innocence regarding any involvement in her son’s death, but her protestations fell on deaf ears. Her son’s death, insisted prosecutors, resulted from her frustrations due to her son’s constant crying. According to authorities, Harris wrapped a fitted bedsheet cord around her son’s neck and strangled him.
Convicted of the crime by a Cook County jury, Harris spent seven years (of a 30-year sentence) in prison before the 7th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated her conviction in October 2012. On February 25, 2013, she exited the Dwight Correctional Center a “free” woman. ”This isn’t just a legal victory,” said Alison Flaum, an attorney with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Conviction, which joined forces with the law firm Jenner & Block to defend Harris. “They saw this case for the miscarriage of justice that it was.” Harris has always maintained that her son died accidentally and that she had nothing to do with his death.
Harris’ case is troublesome, however, on so many levels and in so many ways:
- Even though she knew she was innocent, she confessed to the crime following a 27-hour interrogation which, she said, included threats and manipulation by police investigating the case.
- Police initially confronted Harris in a hospital chapel, where she had gone following her collapse after being told that her son had not survived. In such an emotional state, it is no stretch of the imagination to presume that authorial figures often engage powers of persuasion and similar techniques in an effort to elicit false information from vulnerable suspects.
- Harris’ oldest son, Diante, then 5, told investigators that he was alone in the home with his brother when he witnessed Jaquari wrap the cord around his neck while he (Daquari) was playing. Authorities, however, dismissed the brother’s claim.
- The trial judge barred Diante from testifying, deeming him incompetent, presumably, because Diante believed that “Santa Claus, Spider-Man and the tooth fairy” were real figures and not imaginary figures.
- According to reports in the case, prosecutors noted that Diante told investigators that he was asleep when his brother died.
- Various reports indicate that Nicole Harris was at a nearby laundromat when the incident occurred, having instructed both young boys to remain in the home during her absence.
In overturning Harris’ guilty verdict, the judges wrote that if Diante had been allowed to testify, his testimony “would have changed the entire tenor of the case [and supported her oldest son's claims that his brother's death was accidental].”
Although Harris has been released from the Dwight Correctional Center and can begin the journey to rebuild the life she left behind in 2005, her legal battles are far from over. The State has appealed the October 2012 ruling and has asked the U. S. Supreme Court to review the case. Additionally, Cook County prosecutors could still move to retry the case. On February 25, 2013, the date of Harris’ release, a representative from the State Attorney’s Office said that a decision to retry the defendant had not yet been made.
In the meantime, Nicole Harris has maintained a positive outlook, insisting that she knew that prison wasn’t her “final destination,” that “eventually we’ll have full victory, and it’ll be all over.”
Through all that she has endured, she is certainly due the future she envisioned when she earned her college degree and stepped forward into a life of promise.