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Jean Harris Trial: 1980-81

An Awkward Start, Harris Testifies, Defense Goes For Broke And Loses, Relentless Appeals Finally Succeed

Defendant: Jean S. Harris
Crime Charged: Second-degree murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Joel Aurnou
Chief Prosecutor: George Bolen
Judge: Russell R. Leggett
Place: White Plains, New York
Dates of Trial: November 21, 1980-February 24, 1981
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 15 years to life

SIGNIFICANCE: Jean Harris' trial was initially famous for the celebrity of the lover she was accused of murdering, but the handling of her defense and the sentence pronounced were debated for years afterward. Her prison writings were among the books prompting review of New York's "Son of Sam" law by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 10, 1980, Jean Harris left the exclusive Virginia school for girls where she was headmistress and drove 400 miles to the Purchase, New York, home of Dr. Herman Tarnower. Harris entered the bedroom of her lover of 14 years carrying a bouquet of flowers and a loaded revolver. Her version of what happened next would be emotionally debated in one of the most widely examined trials in the history of New York state.

Bullets from Harris' gun had indisputably killed the 69-year-old Tarnower, author of the popular The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. Yet Harris' attorney, Joel Aurnou, announced that his client's intended victim had been herself. Despondent over Tarnower's rejection of her for a younger woman and depressed by the pressures of her job at the Madeira School, the 57-year-old headmistress had driven to the cardiologist's house to see him a last time before committing suicide. Harris claimed that Tarnower was accidentally wounded trying to wrest the gun from her.

The Westchester County District Attorney's office proposed that Harris' actions were hardly self-destructive. They accused her of shooting Tarnower in a jealous fury that had been building for years. From the moment her trial began in November 1980, her intent at the time she pulled the trigger was the crucial issue that would determine her fate.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980