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An apology 47 years in the making: New Orleans ‘juvenile lifer’ who killed 3 men in 1977 is granted parole

By Ray Sanchez, CNN

(CNN) — Warren Harris Jr. said he was sorry.

He directed his remorse to the families of the three men he robbed and fatally stabbed when he was 16 and high on heroin in New Orleans. Sitting at a table at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Harris, 63, talked in a video conference about the guilt that has gripped him while serving life in a prison known as Angola, originally a slave plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River. With God’s help, he said, he reevaluated his life. Family members of his victims were not at the April 17 hearing.

I have a few nephews,” Harris said during the hearing before the state parole board. “I have one that I constantly pray for and I wish to reach him before anything happens to him or before he winds up in prison. Not just him. Maybe a few of his friends, you know.”

It was an apology 47 years in the making. The murders happened during an eight-week span from February to April 1977. Fear spread in New Orleans that a serial killer was targeting gay men in the French Quarter, where officers on horseback were put on patrol around the strip joints and jazz clubs of Bourbon Street.

“It was a very horrific crime, but I do feel that you’ve done all you can do in Angola,” said parole board member Curtis “Pete” Fremin Jr., a former state director of probation and parole who provided the crucial second vote needed for Harris’ release.

Harris wiped tears behind his glasses. He’s now among the roughly 121 “juvenile lifers” to be granted release via a parole hearing or negotiated resolution with prosecutors since a 2017 Louisiana law made them eligible after serving 25 years, according to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

Under the law, juvenile lifers resentenced and offered parole eligibility must also obtain a GED, spend a year without a major disciplinary write up and meet other requirements.

‘A punishment to sentence a child to die in prison’

Harris’ release was set in motion by recent US Supreme Court decisions.

In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the high court ruled life sentences for juvenile offenders without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court relied on research that showed young people are scientifically different from adults, their brains and self-control not fully developed. In Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, the Supreme Court made the Miller decision retroactive.

After the Montgomery decision in 2016, some 297 Louisiana prisoners were eligible for resentencing, according to Hannah Van De Car, deputy legal director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. About 150 of them are still incarcerated. At least 18 of the 297 died behind bars before their hearings, Van De Car said.

Van De Car said there is no official state tally of cases involving juvenile lifers.

“It’s maybe better than an estimate. Not as good as perfect,” she said of the center’s count of the cases. “In Louisiana we are the only people who track this … so whether we are catching every single case, I don’t know. I really hope so. But it’s really hard to know.”

The United States is the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before age 18, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that studies inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Despite the distinction, the US in recent years has witnessed a reassessment of incarceration standards, with efforts to promote rehabilitation and reduce excessive sentences – particularly involving youth in the criminal justice system.

Since Miller in 2012, 28 states and the District of Columbia have banned life sentences without parole for people under 18, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In the US, 488 people are serving life without parole for crimes committed as children – including people awaiting resentencing and new cases since the Miller decision, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth said in figures updated in late February. Nearly 1,100 people sentenced to life without parole as children have been released since 2016, the group said.

“We don’t need to maintain a punishment to sentence a child to die in prison,” Van De Car said. “If what we know is the vast, vast, vast majority are going to grow up. They’re going to have their opportunity. Their brain development is going to occur. Behavior shift is going to occur. Rehabilitation is going to occur.”

‘I robbed and killed those men’

Harris was a teenager when police arrested him in a motel room after receiving a tip from an informant. He was indicted on four counts of first-degree murder in 1977, according to a summary of the 1980 appeal of his eventual conviction on three of the counts.

The victims lived alone within a seven or eight block stretch of the French Quarter. Harris met them on the bus or on the street. His victims were Jack Savell, Alden Delano and Ernest Pommier, according to wire service reports at the time. He was acquitted of the murder of a man named Robert Gary.

The state supreme court upheld the conviction, ruling in part that Harris’ confessions, which he said were made under duress after officers threatened him, were “freely and voluntarily made,” according to the appeal summary. Harris was sentenced in November 1977 to three consecutive life terms.

At the April parole hearing, board member Steve Prator, a former Shreveport police officer and Caddo Parish sheriff, told Harris his crimes seemed “almost like a serial killer.“

“With my background, that’s what it sounds like. So what was the MO of this serial killer?” Prator asked before voting to keep Harris in prison.

“I was in need of money to support that drug. The drugs I was using at the time,” said Harris, a sheaf of papers on a table in front of him. “I became affiliated with some of the victims and was asked to accompany them to their home. And at the time when we entered the home, I robbed and killed those men. And I regret it … I’m so sorry every day.”

Parole board member Jerrie LeDoux, who voted in favor of parole, told Harris that before her decisions she often asks herself, “Would I be afraid to live next door to this person?”

“I believe that you’re ready for the streets,” she said.

At one point she asked: “I want to hear in your own words Mr. Harris, why should we consider letting you out?”

“I have rehabilitated myself. God has allowed me to reevaluate my life and set out on a positive course,” Harris said.

He said he “stopped being around negative individuals” in prison.

‘We shouldn’t be an outlier on this’

At Angola, Harris became a prison trustee – inmates entrusted with certain jobs and responsibilities – and has not been written up for discipline since 2017. He learned landscaping and other trades, earned his GED on his sixth attempt and completed substance abuse courses. He is a member of a gospel band as well as the “Pure Heart Messengers” singing group, according to testimony at the parole hearing.

In a 2008 research interview for the documentary “Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians,” Harris told director Benjamin Harbert, chair of the performing arts department at Georgetown University, that music gave him inner freedom.

“Music to me is like if you’re reading a western and you’re enjoying this western. It’s just like you’re that individual … riding across the plain or you’re in the saloon or whatever,” he told the director.

One day, Harris recalled, a rendition of “Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name” on a gospel radio station stirred him emotionally.

“She was singing that song. A flood gate open. It was a new experience to me. I’m crying real tears,” he said of gospel singer Shirley Ceasar. “That was something that really touched me. Gospel became something I now live.”

At his parole hearing, Harris said he is “a server giving my time and the very little resources that I have helping those who cannot help themselves.”

Kerry Myers, deputy director of the Louisiana Parole Project, told the parole board that Harris has a support system. The nonprofit will help with “in essence detoxification from the institutionalization” Harris has endured for decades.

“You can’t minimize any of the actions. They were horrific, but this whole capacity to grow and mature is the reason we’re here today,” Myers said.

Harris’ attorney, Abigail Floresca, described how he has channeled his remorse and processed the harm he caused. Even children who commit heinous crimes, she said, are capable of change.

“Sixteen-year-old Warren sat in his grandfather’s church, nodding off, high on heroin,” Floresca said. “Sixty-three-year-old Mr. Harris has earned 41 certificates for bible studies. Sixteen-year-old Warren took the lives of multiple men. Sixty-three-year-old Mr. Harris takes care of the elderly and sick in hospice.”

After his release, Harris will stay with his 60-year-old sister, Brenda Palmer, who also made an emotional appeal to the parole board.

“I was pregnant at 14. I was a grandmother at 40 and throughout the years we all have turned our lives around,” Palmer said. “I have seen Warren grow throughout the years. We all were in prison … with Warren.”

She added, “Warren has been like a father, uncle to my children, my grandchildren, and we lean on each other. When I go and visit, I don’t just go to visit him. I go because I need him. He’s been a support to me … I’m here to be here for him until the day God calls us all home.”

Harris removed his glasses and wiped his tears.

Van De Car, of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said: “One of the biggest things I spend a lot of time thinking about is, we’re just talking about kids… It’s kind of a cliché at this point, but we all can think back on who you were at 15, 16 or 17 and recognize it’s not who we are today. You know, we shouldn’t be an outlier on this across the world. We just shouldn’t.”

CNN’s Alisha Ebrahimji and Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report.

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