The Tracey Harris Murder Ethics Train Wreck

I stumbled across a year-old CBS “48 Hours” episode that depressed me about the state of ethics alarms in the culture, but to be fair, almost everything is doing that right now.

Tracey Harris (with her daughter, above) vanished from her home in Ozark, Alabama on March 7, 1990. A week later, her body was found in the nearby Choctawhatchee River, and the autopsy revealed that Tracey had drowned, though she had marks on her neck consistent with strangulation. Her death was ruled a homicide. Suspicion immediately fell on her ex-husband Carl, who had continued to live with Tracey and their young daughter after their divorce. He was rumored to be abusive, and had been having an affair with a local teen. Investigators believed, but could not prove, that Carl was the last person to see Tracey alive.

Police and prosecutors interviewed over a dozen neighbors and acquaintances of the Harrises, but there was never sufficient evidence to arrest Carl or seek an indictment. However, the community hostility inflamed by the widespread belief that Carl had murdered his popular former wife drove him to leave the county. Tracey’s parents adopted his daughter, who remains permanently estranged from him.

Tracey’s murder became a cold case until 2016, when a review of the evidence by Ozark’s police caused the Dale County District Attorney’s office to seek a grand jury indictment of Carl Harris for Tracey Harris’s murder. The grand jury complied, and Harris was arrested and charged in September of that year.

DA Kirke Adams and Assistant District Attorney Jordan Davis explained to CBS that getting all of the witnesses together to testify on Carl’s violent moods and threats to Tracey had done the trick. “Those things just add up,” Adams said. Well sure they did, when everyone in the community had assumed Carl was the killer for decades. There was no motive, timeline or physical evidence linking him to the murder. This was a textbook example of over-zealous, unethical prosecutor conduct.

The preparation for Carl’s murder trial continued for more than three years as he remained free on bail. Ozark police re-interviewed many of the those who had originally given statements, but not one Dawn Beasley, who had moved away from Ozark. Just months before Tracey’s murder in 1990, Beasley and her fiancé briefly stayed with the Harris family in their home. There she witnessed their frequent arguments, Carl’s temper, his physical abuse, and on one occasion, Beasley had told police, an episode where he placed his hands around his ex-wife’s neck.

The prosecutors realized Beasley’s original statement gave credence to the theory that Carl had strangled Tracey, so they tracked down Dawn Beasley (above right) , called her, and asked her to testify as a prosecution witness at the trial. She refused. “I said, no, I can’t possibly do that. My job is very stressful,” she says on camera in the “48 Hours” report. Finally, after she was told that she would be compelled to testify under subpoena, Dawn revealed what she described as a “30 year secret.”

“I was very unhappy,” Beasley said. “I said, ‘You’re ruining my life and you don’t understand why you guys don’t want me to testify.’” The reason? “The most important reason I can’t testify is because you have an innocent man on trial,” Beasley said she told Davis. “The man that did commit the crime … confessed it to me the night he did it.”

That was her then fiancé, Jeffery Beasley, who had come to her the very night Tracey died and in a panic, admitted that he had drowned her by accident in the midst of an argument. Dawn’s revelation occurred just three days before Carl was to stand trial for murder. Under questioning, Jeff Beasley confessed to the killing, and was eventually convicted of the crime.

The statements by Dawn Beasley during the “48 Hours” episode are infuriating. When asked why she didn’t mention the fact that she knew who had murdered Tracey when she was first interviewed by police, she answered that all she was asked about was what she witnessed when she was living with Tracey and Carl. She also said she didn’t regard what she said to police as a lie. (She reported facts that she knew would be used to incriminate another man for a murder she knew had been committed by Jeffrey Beasley, while omitting the information that would put what she reported in proper context. That’s lying.) Dawn justified her withholding of the solution to the murder mystery by saying that she was pregnant, and that revealing Jeffrey’s confession would upend her life plans.

Oh! What a great reason to destroy another human being’s life! Dead ethics alarms.

Dawn is infuriatingly matter-of-fact about why she kept quiet, seemingly assuming that everyone will agree that because the truth would have “ruined her life,” she made the right choice in withholding it.

Her decision poisoned Carl Harris’s life, however, and a reckless police department and two incompetent prosecutors were working hard to complete the task by getting Harris convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. DA Adams had the gall to say after Jeffrey Beasley’s arrest:

“This has been an amazing series of events, and no doubt in my mind, led from above. I think this arrest shows we never give up on getting the truth and serving justice. My oath is to seek justice and not merely convictions, That burden never rests.”

Yecchh. First he plays the God card, “led from above,” to deflect from his own misconduct. “Never give up”? He wasn’t seeking the truth when he tracked down Dawn Beasley, he was trying to secure a witness who could bolster his weak case against Carl Harris. It was pure, dumb luck that she happened to hold the key to identifying the real murderer. The DA indicting of Harris was precisely an example of seeking a conviction without regard to justice: if he didn’t know there wasn’t evidence to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he should have.

As for Dawn Beasley, Adams and Davis say they never considered charging her, and make it clear that they are just grateful that she rescued them from an even greater professional embarrassment than they have already had. Carl Harris is pursuing some laws suits. Good.

This is how innocent people end up in prison.

This is how rationalizations and lack of character and courage ruin lives.

This is why the public doesn’t trust the justice system.

This is, to use a hoary cliché, “why we can’t have nice things.” Too many people like Dawn Beasley calculate that it is worth harming others to maximize their own self-interests, and assume this is acceptable conduct because “anyone would do the same thing.”

How many friends, relatives and acquaintances are in our lives who are capable of acting like Dawn Beasley?

I don’t want to think about it.

20 thoughts on “The Tracey Harris Murder Ethics Train Wreck

  1. How many of our friends and relatives are capable of acting like Dawn Beasley is an easier ask than of our acquaintances. I would hope that none of them are, especially when an innocent man is on the hook. I don’t have many friends and only one living relative and I don’t consort with criminals, so the opportunity for someone in that group being faced with such an issue.
    Acquaintances, however, are a wild card. Three weeks ago, the grocery delivery driver – someone who’s been inside my house many times before – decided I was the person she was going to hear her rant was me. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, but it was very intense & went on for nearly 20 minutes.
    Up until that point, our conversations were limited to Good Morning, How Are You, Having A Good Day, Thank You.

  2. Unless you’re having a disagreement with a fellow scuba diver at the bottom of the sea, “accidentally” drowning someone in the midst of an argument seems like a pretty unlikely occurrence.

    Stories like this are why I stopped supporting capital punishment. I still think there are plenty of people whose crimes are heinous enough to have earned them a dirt nap, but I don’t trust this flawed system to not fuck it up and kill an innocent person now and again.

      • No. I oppose capital punishment on the grounds that our justice system has shown repeatedly that it’s too flawed to be trusted to mete out such an irreversible punishment. There is a serviceable alternative – lifetime imprisonment – so the death penalty, which I agree is emotionally satisfying, is not strictly necessary. And when the inevitable occurs and someone who really is innocent is vindicated, they can at least be set free. It’s much more difficult to raise the dead.

          • Michael, I’ve stated my objection to a single government policy, I haven’t broadened that into a blanket philosophical objection to all potentially similar scenarios. You obviously have some kind of “gotcha” in mind, so perhaps you could directly offer up for discussion an example of what you’re thinking of, rather than being coy.

        • But you know that there are instances when there is literally no doubt about guilt, and the crime is horrible. I don’t see an argument against death in those extraordinary cases. Manson. Bundy. The Unibomber. Daumer. Gacy. Jack Ruby (who was videotaped committing murder). The Cheshire home invaders. The Marathon Bomber. I resent having to pay a cent in taxes to keep them alive, and in their cases, the flaws of the system are irrelevant. In their cases, a marshal with a gun could come up behind them the moment the official verdict came down and execute them on the spot, and it would be fine with me.

          Messy, though.

          • In cases where there is absolutely no doubt, I have no real objection. Jeffrey Dahmer is a great example – there was a living victim who escaped, the bodies were found in his apartment, and he even admitted to the crimes, though he claimed insanity as a defense. A mountain of evidence for his guilt, and even he wasn’t arguing for his innocence.

            But there are lots of homicide cases out there that don’t involve nearly that level of evidence, many (like the one discussed in this post) that hinge on less-reliable forms of evidence like eyewitness accounts. The Dahmers and Gacys are the exception, not the rule.

            Like I said, I understand the emotional satisfaction that the death penalty appeals to. I used to be a firm supporter of the concept. But the massively increased cost of death penalty trials basically means that, even when the conviction is upheld and the sentence is carried out, we usually spend more taxpayer money on capital punishment than it would cost for life imprisonment. So it costs more than the alternative punishment, takes many more resources from the criminal justice system, and provides no increase in public safety, while admitting the possibility for the irrevocable ultimate punishment of innocent people railroaded by a flawed system. Aside from emotional catharsis and the appeal of eye-for-an-eye justice, what does capital punishment bring to the table?

            • One thing: it sets an upper limit on the conduct society will tolerate and still grant a citizen leave to exits. Absent that, you end up with the kind of sentences for awful crimes we see in Western Europe: if the worst punishment is just life in prison (with chance of parole) for the “Monsters of the Moors,” or the Yorkshire Ripper, what’s a fair sentence for your average, run-of-the mill spouse killer who wants to tun off with his younger replacement? It reaffirms society’s value of life.

              • There are ways of making a life in prison worse than death. Some of them may even avoid running afoul of that annoying prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment”. I’ve never liked that rule, because some of the most educational punishments could be construed as “cruel and unusual”.

                That said, I don’t buy the idea that the death penalty has worth as a symbol of what is acceptable behavior. “Send a message” or “make an example of them” using human death goes against Kantian ethics. “Life without parole” seems like it should work just fine as a statement of “if you do this, we will remove you from society permanently and you will no longer have the freedom to do what you like” while still allowing someone to be released if they were wrongfully convicted.

              • “Reaffirming the value of life” by taking another life seems a little contradictory, no?

                In any case, if we’re concerned with affirming the value of life, shouldn’t all premeditated murders be punished with the most severe consequences allowable? It doesn’t affirm the value of life much if one person’s murder is punished less hardly than another. Does that wife-killer’s victim have less value because she wasn’t murdered in an overly gruesome manner by a maniac? Seems like that argument should logically lead to a demand for the death penalty in all murders, unless we’re saying that all life has value, but that value increases in proportion to the cruelty with which they’re ended.

                • No! Of course no. You can set the bar wherever you choose: Bin Laden? Hitler? As long as it’s set somewhere. Society has a right and an obligation to decide that certain conduct forfeits the right to continue living.

    • They say it’s better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be wrongly convicted, which is correct in theory, but the practical question is whether you then want those 10 guilty men moving into your neighborhood. The remedy here should be that if anyone deliberately lies and a mistaken execution results, then he/she gets charged with capital murder, and joins the victim in the hereafter.

        • Would it? The only reason we know she lied the first time she was interviewed is because she chose to come clean about it, eventually. If the death penalty was hanging over her head, she would certainly have just doubled down on the lie, an innocent man would have likely been convicted, and the murderer would still be free.

      • If you want to charge the liars with capital murder you will need to make it clear to all that what Dawn did by saying nothing is considered a lie and also you will need to charge DAs who do not hand over evidence to the defence with capital murder as well.

  3. The “accidental drowning someone” happens when a would-be murderer believes his victim is dead prior to placing the not-yet-dead person into water and the victim drowns. Whether or not the victim would have lived if he had not been placed in the water can be good fodder for a jury. The charge is still murder, not attempted murder.
    I’m with Jeff; I support the death penalty, but the Dawn Beasleys and Soros funded District Attorneys leave me erring on the side of caution.

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