Family recalls Harbison victim

Family recalls Harbison victim

January 13th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Edith Russell liked to dress up. She collected antique jewelry. She loved to do other people's hair.

For years, she ran a beauty shop in Chattanooga with her three sisters. When she retired from hairdressing, she worked parttime at a local funeral home, making the dead look their best.

"She was a perfectionist," said her cousin, Barbara McCorkle, who now lives in Arkansas. "When you saw Edith, her nails were always done. Her shoes matched her purse. She was always together."

Edith Russell was thrilled in 1976 when she and her husband, Frank, found a Victorian house in St. Elmo for a low price. It needed a lot of work, but it would be their retirement dream, she told friends and family.

In 1983, Russell, then 62, was found bludgeoned to death in a back room of that house. Her head was bashed so hard by a vase that she was unrecognizable. Her brain matter was splattered across a nearby wall.

Later the same year, a Hamilton County jury convicted a 26-year-old man of murder in her death. Russell had hired Edward Jerome Harbison to do maintenance work around her home. Police said he killed Russell during a botched robbery. His conviction put him on Tennessee's death row.

On Tuesday, a month before Harbison was scheduled to die by lethal injection, outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted his death sentence to life in prison without chance of parole.

Bredesen commuted the sentences of three other inmates, exonerated one man and issued 22 pardons during the last days of his administration.

"It was a terrible crime ... he is going to be in prison forever," Bredesen said Wednesday. "I just thought that case did not feel like it rose to the level where the death penalty was appropriate."

Russell not forgotten

For years, as Harbison filed appeal and after appeal, claiming he was innocent, begging for his death sentence to be delayed or commuted, Edith Russell has had few mourners.

She had no children. Her parents and all 11 brothers and sisters are dead. Her husband was devastated by grief after her death and died a year later.

McCorkle is among just a handful of people who remember Russell. She was 23 when she was told her cousin had been killed, but for 26 years she never knew exactly what happened. She said she stumbled on the story while researching family genealogy early last year and became obsessed with learning what had happened on Jan. 15, 1983.

She called the Hamilton County District Attorney's office to get documents and found out that no one from their family had asked to be updated about the case over the years. When she went to find her cousin's grave at Hamilton Memorial Gardens in Hixson, she said Russell had no headstone.

"It's like she had just been forgotten," she said.

Change of heart

McCorkle said that at first, she wanted to see Harbison die. What he did was gruesome, she said, hitting Russell the way he did and leaving her on the floor of her home.

But after reading depositions, trial transcripts and appeals, she said she started to feel a degree of sympathy for him.

Court records show Harbison has been classified as borderline mentally retarded from an early age. One of five children, he grew up in a shack without running water or electricity. His mother forced him to scavenge for scrap metal. His mom and dad fought, stabbing each other with broken bottles and knives.

When he was 10, Harbison watched his 14-year-old sister shoot and kill her newborn son and 14-month-old daughter. Harbison's sister was placed in a mental institution where she hanged herself, court records show.

Another sister suffered a mental breakdown, and Harbison was often put in charge of caring for her. His brother James was always stealing, in and out of jail, records show.

"I hated him [Edward Harbison]. I thought, 'Execute him. I don't care,'" McCorkle said. "But the more I read, the more I studied, the more I tried to put myself in his shoes."

"Never a problem"

Elizabeth Harbison, Harbison's 82-year-old mother who lives in Chattanooga, said she doesn't know who killed Russell in 1983, but she still doesn't believe her son was responsible.

He didn't get into trouble like her other children and was never a problem, she said.

Every now and then, Harbison calls her from prison to check in and see how she is feeling, to find out how his son and granddaughter are doing. When he called Wednesday to tell her about Bredesen's decision, she told him she was upset that she didn't hear from him at Christmas.

"He said he had waited to call until he had some news," she said. "He asked about what I was seeing on television about the case."

Both agreed that they were disappointed the governor wouldn't give him a chance to get out of prison after all the time he's served behind bars, she said, but they were glad he wouldn't have to say goodbye for the last time.

"We miss him," she said. "I hope I will be living when he gets out."

A high price

Around Thanksgiving, McCorkle said, she wrote Harbison a letter. She told him she knew he had recanted his confession and that she could read all the documents filed in the case and never understood what happened or why.

Still, she said, if he was really the one who killed her cousin, she knew he hadn't planned it or wanted to end Russell's life. And regardless of what many said during the trial and after his conviction, she told him she didn't believe he was a monster.

"I don't think he is an animal," she said. "He has spent 26 years on death row, dying every day a very slow death, waiting for the day. ... I think he's paid a very high price."

After mailing her letter, she said she never heard from him.

McCorkle said she has made plans to come to Chattanooga to visit Russell's grave in the next month. In December, she and her husband paid for a simple headstone.

"Edith Ivey Russell ... 1920 to 1983," it reads. "Seeking justice."

Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this story.

Here are the pardons, commutations and exoneration announced Tuesday by Gov. Phil Bredesen.


-- Robert G. Payne, forgery and receiving stolen property.

-- Jonathan McClain, burglary of motor vehicle, grand larceny and petty larceny.

-- Paul Spano, attempted felony.

-- Catherine Hicks, obtaining money by false pretense.

-- Vickie Jean Burden Humble, accessory before the fact to unlawful possession of controlled substance with intent to sell and attempt to sell controlled substance.

-- Ruth Todos, passing worthless check.

-- John Collie Evans, conspiracy to sell marijuana.

-- Derrel Hooker, possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell and deliver.

-- Daniel Keith Hutto, criminal attempt to sell a controlled substance.

-- Jessica Dawn Fagan, possession of a controlled substance.

-- Mark Daniel Lejsek, sale of a controlled substance, distribution of marijuana, possession of marijuana and DUI.

-- Jacky Wilmon Moore, selling a controlled substance.

-- Brooke Barnett, theft under $500.

-- Kim Menshouse, domestic assault.

-- Lisa Willis, murder.

-- Terry Kincaid, armed robbery, burglary.

-- James R. Shea, grand larceny.

-- John Benbow, possession of marijuana with intent to resell.

-- Larry Williams, burglary and larceny.

-- Sotirios Sarantos, passing worthless checks over $1,000.

-- Rosalind Aldridge, forgery.

-- Roger Wayne Chambers, possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell or deliver.

-- Cheryl Copas, sale of marijuana.


-- Donald Ray Clemmons, aggravated robbery and murder.

-- Kenneth Melton, delivery of a controlled substance in a school zone.

-- Shawnda James, murder.

-- Edward Jerome Harbison, murder.


-- James Green, attempted especially aggravated kidnapping and attempted aggravated sexual battery.