‘I feel brand new’: Wrongfully convicted man celebrates being exonerated

James Harris was originally sentenced to 25 years behind bars.

HOUSTON – James Harris keeps a stack of correspondences on a shelf installed on his kitchen island. Each involves the case against him -- the possession charge that netted him 25 years behind bars -- and the fight he’s led to clear his name.

Harris’ most recent correspondence, from The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas, is brief and concludes with seven words Harris won’t ever forget.

“I read it every day. And this is the one that matters right here, ‘We the court agree. Relief is granted,’” Harris read, pausing to let the words register. “I just feel brand new. We’ll put it like that. I feel brand new all the way around.”

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The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas ruled on Sept. 15 that Harris was right.

“[James Harris] contends that he is innocent. Based on the record, the trial court has determined that [James Harris] has established by clear and convincing evidence that he is actually innocent. We agree. Relief is granted,” read the court’s majority opinion.

Harris, who was granted parole in 2014, said the ruling allowed him something he hasn’t done in nearly 13 years -- rest.

“When the answer came in the next day, I just slept (with) no worries. I just slept. I slept. Clear mind, you know? It’s like a weight off my shoulders. Thirteen years of bricks pilling up, pilling up, day in and day out. I feel brand new,” Harris said.

In 2010, a judge sentenced Harris to 25 years in prison after prosecutors alleged he was behind an alleged “drug house” in northeast Houston.

Houston police accused Harris of running away from the house when they spotted him in 2009, according to court documents.

Harris lived in the same neighborhood as the scene of the alleged crime, however, he maintains he was home speaking with a neighbor at the time of the crime. He said he tried to plead his case to police, to no avail, even telling officers they had mistaken him for someone else. According to court documents, police identified Harris as their suspect with the help of two women police were able to stop at the house.

Following his conviction, Harris filed two appeals. Both were denied. Harris also requested that DNA testing be conducted on the evidence used to convict him. Results excluded Harris from having had any contact with scales or a “pink plastic baggie,” found at the house and taken into evidence, according to findings outlined in lab reports published February 2015, January 2016 and October 2016.

In 2013, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit opened an investigation, per court records. Harris was later appointed a defense attorney who filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus in October 2018, “seeking relief from a final felony conviction,” per court documents.

In June 2019, a judge granted a request for new testimony given by one of the arresting officers, which cast further doubt on Harris’ guilty verdict after the arresting officer testified that he could have arrested the wrong man.

“Aranda, the officer who identified Harris, testified that in observing the photos of James Harris and the other suspect, he could see how one could misidentify one of them,” Harris read from the testimony outlined in the writ.

“Further down the line, it says, ‘I may have been wrong. I may have. I believe I saw Mr. Harris, but I may have been wrong,’” Harris’ read of the transcript.

Harris said both the officer’s testimony, as well as a lack of DNA evidence, were key to proving his innocence.

“My lawyer worked so hard on it. She talked with [prosecutors] and they went back and reinvested the case, actually thoroughly took their time and reinvestigated. Ultimately, the truth came out,” Harris said.

As he awaits the final paperwork, Harris said he looks forward to spending time with his family, which includes his mother, children, and grandchildren.

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“When I said I won, I could hear the emotion on the phone from my mother and my kids. I could just hear it and it felt so good to me for them to know he’s going to be here,” Harris said.

As for what’s next, Harris said he looks forward to a trip out of state, at some point. He said he also wants to use his experience to help others who may have been wrongfully convicted.

“Just keep fighting. I know a lot of guys that just said, ‘Forget it. I’m going to do the time.’ They’re doing the time and still stuck down there. From day one I told them it wasn’t me, all the way to today, and I’ll go to my grave telling them it wasn’t me. Just keep fighting,” Harris said.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.