By Bryan Schwartzman
The 32-year-old St. Albans native and former Golden Gloves finalist served the time for an armed robbery that a State Supreme Court judge in Kew Gardens has found was committed by his older brother, Harold Harris.
Last month State Supreme Court Judge Randall Eng exonerated Gerald Harris of the 1991 robbery of a Jamaica Estates couple in their home. Eng was the same judge who in 1992 sentenced Harris to 8 1/2 to 19 years in prison.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has not determined whether to press charges against Harold Harris, who is serving time on federal drug charges, said Mary de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the DA. Two other men admitted at last month's hearing to being accomplices in the robbery, but de Bourbon said they will not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has run out.
Gerald Harris did not know that his brother Harold was responsible for the armed robbery until after his conviction, said Phillip Smallman, Gerald Harris' lawyer since 1996.
After Gerald Harris' conviction, Harold Harris sent a letter to the court maintaining his brother was innocent. After the boxer was sentenced, Harold Harris had an attorney fax an affidavit containing a full confession to the court, Smallman said.
Harold Harris went before a Queens judge with an attorney, but the hearing was adjourned, Smallman said. Harris went to South Carolina where he was arrested on federal drug charges, Smallman said. The Queens DA never arranged for Harold Harris to be sent back to clear his brother's name, Gerald said.
“It's like being introduced to the world all over again,” Gerald Harris said in an interview at his family's St. Albans home. “It seemed like the partying never stopped.”
He was reunited with his four other brothers and two sisters, and he drove to Baltimore to see his mother in the home she moved to several years ago. He even visited Miami with a friend and plans to go to the Super Bowl in Tampa at the end of the month.
But behind Gerald Harris' quiet jubilation remain his scars and anger at being incarcerated at five different upstate penitentiaries for a crime he never committed.
“Me and him don't have nothing to say to each other,” he said, referring to his brother Harold.
Gerald Harris said he never fully accepted the fact that he was in prison, and while he was physically in jail, his thoughts were with the outside world “in the streets.”
“I always made sure to keep in my mind that this ain't part of me,” he said. “You never get a chance to think by yourself, and you think, could you just give me a vacation from this.”
“It's an experience you have to live through to get a true feeling of how it was. What if this would have been a death penalty case?”
Ten years ago the Martin Van Buren High School graduate appeared to have a bright future. He had reached the finals in the light heavyweight division of the Golden Gloves, one of the oldest and best known amateur boxing events in the country. At 6 feet, 3 inches and 178 pounds, he seemed poised to begin a successful prize-fighting career.
Then Gerald Harris' legal troubles started. At first he didn't confide in those closest to him, including his trainer Bob Jackson.
“He should have come to me. I'm the one person that could have helped him,” Jackson said last week during an interview at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, where he trains up-and-coming fighters. “The next thing we knew he was going to jail.”
Jackson, who had worked for the state Corrections Department for more than 20 years, was convinced Harris was innocent and was determined to make sure Harris survived the ordeal.
Gerald Harris spent his time writing to lawyers, law professors, and news organizations trying to draw attention to his case.
“Everyone around me told me to stop stressing out and just do the time, but I couldn't do that,” Gerald Harris said.
In 1996 former Queens Assistant District Attorney Phillip Smallman decided to take the case.
“I talked to him for 30 seconds and I knew I had an innocent man,” said Smallman. “He did 8 1/2 years for being a tall black man.”
Smallman said the criminal justice system let Harris down from the beginning
“Many mistakes were made,” Smallman said.
Jackson said that after Harold Harris initially tried to clear his brother's name, he went to Washington, D.C. to sell drugs before being arrested and convicted on federal drug charges.
Smallman said Gerald Harris' case gained some momentum when Smallman's old friend, Assistant District Attorney Greg Lesak, agreed to reexamine the case.
Smallman worked to produce evidence that would exonerate Gerald Harris and he got help from Brooklyn Law School professor William Hellerstein, who became involved in the case after receiving a letter from Gerald Harris.
Gerald Harris said that when there was the hope he would get another day in court, his time in jail seemed even harsher.
“It is easier to go through six months of waiting for nothing than 12 days of waiting for something,” he said.
Smallman compared his client's struggle to that of someone who was constantly climbing a wall.
“So many times he would get up to the top and his fingernails would be at the ledge and someone would step on his hands,” said Smallman.
But last month it all came together, and Harold Harris admitted on the stand, without immunity, that he was the one who committed the armed robbery.
Now Gerald Harris is just trying to enjoy his first month as a free man. He said he has considered going to college to study psychology, but he also thinks he may enter a few professional fights and see how he fares.
“He is the same man he was, humble, friendly, outgoing,” said Jackson. “Gerald can do anything he wants to do.”