Clarence Harrison walks up to the counter at Frankie’s, a west Atlanta burger and hotdog joint, and orders a Polish sausage. It’s lunchtime and the place is noisy with chatter and the sizzling of the grill. Harrison, a thickset man with a greying beard and an unexpectedly quiet voice, has to repeat his order twice before the cashier gets it.
As it turns out, Harrison is not so sure about Polish sausage, although he likes the fries that come with it. Mostly, though, he is just glad to be out on his lunch break this bright December Friday, eating French fries and sipping soda and looking forward to a weekend at home with his wife.
Harrison has reason to appreciate the small pleasures most of us take for granted. Just three months earlier, he was in jail at Georgia’s Smith State Prison, where he had spent the past seventeen years. In 1987, he was convicted of robbery, rape, and kidnapping and sentenced to life plus twenty years, plus another twenty.
From the time of his arrest, Harrison maintained his innocence. But after more than seventeen years in prison, he had all but given up hope of ever getting out. He owes his new freedom, in large part, to Emory law student Jason Costa ’99C-’06L, who worked with the nonprofit Georgia Innocence Project (GIP) to bring to light DNA evidence that proved Harrison’s innocence.
At about five o’clock on a rainy October morning in 1986, a woman was walking to a MARTA bus stop in Decatur when she was attacked, dragged to an embankment, and raped three times in different locations before she was able to run away. She went to the home of a friend, who called the police and helped the victim get to a hospital.
DeKalb County police later picked up Harrison in a nearby neighborhood based on a tip that he had been trying to sell a watch, and the victim’s watch had been stolen. The watch in question was never found, but the victim later identified Harrison (who had a prior conviction for purse-snatching) from a photograph; her eyewitness testimony was the primary evidence for his conviction.
At the time, Harrison was married with two young children and worked driving a forklift at a plastic-barreling facility. Soon after his arrest, even before his case went to trial, his wife filed for divorce. His children visited him sporadically in prison at first, then not at all.
For months after his conviction, Harrison says he was on a “spree,” writing letters and making phone calls from jail to try to convince anyone who might listen that he had been wrongly imprisoned.
“I was still crying about my innocence,” he says. “I’ve still got a bunch of the letters I wrote.”
But a few years after his incarceration, Harrison was told that the evidence of his crime—the rape kit that included a semen sample from the victim—had been destroyed. It was then that he gave up, he says, and resigned himself to the soul-destroying monotony of prison life.
A decade later, however, he began to find hope again. In the late 1990s, Harrison began corresponding with a woman he first met on the phone through another inmate. A person of strong religious faith, Yvonne Zellars befriended Harrison and believed in his innocence. Through letters, phone calls, and visits over the next half-dozen years, the two grew close, building a relationship on a foundation of spiritual belief. Zellars began to seek legal help for Harrison and encouraged him to try once more to tell his story.
Still behind bars, Harrison asked Zellars to marry him if he was released.
“I thought, ‘That lady’s got more faith than me’,” Harrison says. “She put the fight back in me.”
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