Des Moines Register

Free man
Case dismissed against man who served 25 years

By Mark Siebert

10/25/2003

Omaha, Neb. -
Terry Harrington embarked on his new life Friday night, free after serving 25 years of a life sentence and always maintaining his innocence.

Terry Harrington
Terry Harrington (AP Photo)
"There are very few of us who can look down the barrel of injustice for 25 years and say the truth will come out," said his attorney, Tom Frerichs, after a first-degree murder charge was dismissed.

Harrington, 44, pressed a cell phone to his ear to talk to loved ones as a free man.

"I've been an insomniac since the first day I got locked up until last night," Harrington said. "Right now, I am so relieved. I can breathe normal. I may go home and do a Rip Van Winkle. I hope I don't, you know, because there's so much I've missed out on already."

Harrington was convicted in 1978 for the murder of a retired Council Bluffs police officer. He spent years appealing before new evidence got him released in April. Days later, the murder charge was refiled.

On Friday, a judge dismissed the case, ending a quarter-century quest for redemption.

"I did not murder John Schweer," Harrington said. "But I do sympathize with their family right now, because my family had to go through basically the same thing they went through - the loss of a loved one."

Harrington talked to well-wishers and reporters in an Omaha hotel lobby.

He mentioned praying a lot and thanked God for his good fortune, which included previously undisclosed police reports uncovered by a woman who took up his cause.

Asked what he was going to do now, he broke into a big smile and joked, "I'm going to Disneyland!"

Earlier in the afternoon, Pottawattamie County Attorney Matthew Wilber announced he had reluctantly ended an effort to re-try Harrington for the 1977 shotgun slaying.

"After personally spending hundreds of hours on this case, I have no doubt that Terry Harrington committed the murder of John Schweer in 1977," Wilber said at a press conference in his office. "The jury made the right decision in 1978, and the right man went to prison for 25 years. That said, I also have no doubt that the admissible evidence which is left after 26 years is not sufficient to sustain a conviction against Mr. Harrington."

Wilber said he filed the dismissal of charges without prejudice, meaning the charge could be refiled if new evidence comes to light or becomes admissible.

Wilber asked that the charges be dismissed largely because of changing testimony of witnesses, particularly Kevin Hughes, who identified Harrington as the shooter but recanted several times, most recently on Thursday afternoon.

"The interesting irony of this case is that Terry Harrington was put in prison by his own friends and associates," Wilber said.

Also Friday, prosecutors sentenced Curtis McGhee to time served and allowed him to go free. McGhee, who like Harrington was found guilty of first-degree murder, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder last month in exchange for his testimony in Harrington's trial.

Harrington was offered a similar deal, but chose to do what he has since his trial in 1978: proclaim his innocence.

It was a risky strategy that could have sent him back to prison. But on Friday both McGhee and Harrington - two black teenagers convicted of a crime they say they didn't commit - were free men.

Frerichs was upset by Wilber's dismissal motion that laid out the state's theory: Harrington, McGhee and Hughes went to Council Bluffs to steal a buckskin 1977 Toronado. Schweer, a night watchman, interrupted the theft and pursued Harrington and McGhee along a stretch of railroad tracks.

"While searching the area for the car thieves, Schweer was shot at close range by Terry Harrington in the right shoulder and right chest," the motion said.

Frerichs noted that all the witnesses in the case have recanted. "If they still think they have such a good case," Frerichs said, "they shouldn't have dismissed it."

Frerichs said it was too early to say whether Harrington will pursue a wrongful conviction case in civil court.

Both sides offered their sympathy to the Schweer family, members of which were unavailable for comment.

Wilber said he spoke with the Schweer family for two hours Friday. While disappointed with the outcome, they are supportive of the decision, Wilber said.

Harrington also expressed his condolences.

Harrington talked with some of his loved ones via cell phone Friday night, telling them to watch for him on television. He gave them the news and thanked those who helped win his freedom - particularly Anne Danaher.

While the case might not be over, the dismissal ends what is an amazing story of redemption. Harrington had run out of appeals, and it appeared he would live out the rest of his days in prison when his family - visiting him at the Iowa State Penitentiary - struck up a conversation in the parking lot with a prison barber.

The barber, Danaher, took up Harrington's cause. Eventually, she discovered previously undisclosed police reports, one that mentioned another suspect in the case.

The new reports persuaded the Iowa Supreme Court that Harrington did not receive a fair trial. The high court overturned his conviction, and Gov. Tom Vilsack granted him a temporary reprieve in April.

Harrington has been out on bond since his release in April. And he has been fighting to clear his name.

"God is great. God is great. God is great," Harrington said to another well-wisher as he flung a handful of coins into the hotel fish pond.

Luck? Divine intervention? Whichever, Terry Harrington is a free man.


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