AN UNLIKELY KILLER : At Age 94, Murder Defendant Presented Unusual Problems for Prosecutor, Court and Family
He sat stooped over in the courtroom, a blank expression on his face, looking for all the world like a frail, bent farmer in some remote hamlet of the deep South. He was 94 years old, black, and accused of murder.
The victim was his wife, who was 88 years old on that March day in Santa Ana when Edward Harrell picked up a gun, shot three times, and sent the tranquility of his family into the grave with his wife.
Now, in a near-deserted court just blocks from the murder scene, the law was taking its course in the case of the People versus Edward Harrell, with lawyers asking questions to which they already knew the answers, and folks not accustomed to the rituals of jurisprudence looking bewildered.
Consider the first prosecution witness, Edna Harrell, 63, daughter-in-law of Edward Harrell and his late wife, Connie.
Prosecutor Ed Munoz noted that Edna and her husband, Waddie Harrell, live on West 9th Street in Santa Ana. “And that’s in Orange County?” Munoz asked. Edna Harrell looked at the prosecutor as if he had just landed from Mars. “Yes,” she replied, the tone of incredulity matching the look on her face. She continued to testify.
On March 31 of this year, Edna’s daughter, Carol, answered the phone and handed it to her.
“What did you hear?” Munoz asked.
“I heard a scream in the phone,” Edna Harrell said.
Who was it?
“It was Mama Connie. . . .”
How long had you known her?
“That was a long time. I can’t remember back those years. . . . We were like mother and daughter.”
Did Connie Harrell say anything?
“She said, ‘Ed’s got a gun. He’s gonna kill me.’ ”
Edna Harrell and her grandson, Eric Johnson, drove to her in-laws’ house. When they got there, she “went straight through the gate and started toward the house. . . . I walked up the steps and got to the top step.”
Did you go farther?
No, “because I saw her lying on the floor.”
“Who did you see lying on the floor?”
“Did you see anything that might look like blood?”
“I didn’t get that close, believe me.”
Edna Harrell backed down the stairs. “I went to Eric Johnson’s car and told him: ‘We’re too late. She’s already dead.’ ”
Munoz asked Edna Harrell if she saw Edward Harrell in the courtroom. She gave him her man-from-Mars stare. “I know these (questions) sound pretty silly to you,” Munoz said.
“They sure do,” Edna Harrell said.
What did you hear Mr. Harrell say?
“ ‘I had to kill Connie.’ ” Anything else? “He said, ‘She took my money.’ ” Anything else? “He said, ‘Y’all come in. I’m not going to bother y’all.’ ” Did you see anything in his hands? “A gun.” Did you ever go into the house that morning? “No way.”
On another Friday, 3 months after the preliminary hearing, Edward Harrell’s case was the first of the day in the Superior Court room of Judge Myron S. Brown. Harrell was accompanied by Waddie Harrell and a nurse from the Santa Ana Care Home, a residence for the elderly.
As with the July hearing, this court proceeding last Friday was delayed at first while defense attorney Paul Meyer determined if his client could hear him. The old man had left his hearing aid at home, so Meyer shouted the questions.
Did Harrell admit shooting his wife? Did he realize that by pleading guilty to second-degree murder he could be sentenced to 17 years to life in prison? Was he an American citizen? All the answers were “yes.”
Dressed in a blue sport coat, brown trousers and a red corduroy shirt, leaning on his cane, Edward Harrell said at one point: “I can’t understand what you are saying.” Meyer repeated his comments and Harrell nodded.
The proceeding started at 8:48 a.m. and was over by 9:12. Edward Harrell was pronounced guilty and sentenced to spend 5 years in the Santa Ana Care Home, “not to leave the premises of that facility” and to be kept in 24-hour lockup there except for emergency medical care. His time in the facility was to be supervised by the Orange County Probation Department.
And so, the case of Edward Harrell, surely one of the oldest murder defendants in U.S. history, was decided.
“In this particular case, the facts are not unusual,” prosecutor Munoz said after the sentencing. “It’s a murder. The only thing that is really unusual about the case is the status of the man, Mr. Harrell, as he stood before the court.”
It was not only Harrell’s age that made him unusual, but also his sentence. Most murderers are shipped to state prison. Few are sent to a retirement home, with their family picking up the bill of about $700 per month, as in the Harrell case. In fact, no one could remember an identical murder sentence.
But no one could remember a defendant this old, either. Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks said Harrell was the oldest murder defendant in Hicks’ 32 years in office. Defense attorney Meyer said he thinks his client was the oldest person in the country to be charged with murder.
But as the population ages, cases of violence by the elderly are increasing.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys said that in many cases in which an elderly person is charged with murder, it is because of a failed murder-suicide attempt. With both spouses in ill health, a man may shoot his wife, but then drop the gun and be unable to retrieve it to kill himself.
Paul Blair, a psychiatrist who teaches at UC Irvine and specializes in law and psychiatry, said that the increase in violent crimes by the elderly is “a real cause for concern.”
And although most people are more able to control their emotions as they grow older, Blair said he has noticed that as people get into their 60s, 70s and older, “whatever personal characteristics were present earlier on in life tend to be intensified and exaggerated as time goes on.
“If you were mildly suspicious at the age of 30, by the time you’re 80 you might wind up being paranoid, guarded in your outlook.”
Blair said that as people advance into their 80s and 90s, “we become more childlike and impulsive and less in control of ourselves. Our mental capabilities and our sensory capacities are definitely diminished.”
But so far, according to the state Justice Department, the number of men over age 60 in the state prison population has not gone up. In fact, the percentage declined from 2.4% in 1968 to 0.8% at the end of last year.
Why Edward Harrell became a statistic is anybody’s guess.
Police said Harrell shot his wife because he suspected her of taking money from a stash of thousands of dollars he kept in their small, wood-frame bungalow in Santa Ana.
But there was no evidence to support the allegation, and Munoz said that his investigator on the case questioned family, friends and neighbors and found there had “never really been any real dispute in the household, no physical violence or physical outbursts of any type.”
Meyer said after the killing that Harrell could not tell him much about what happened. “He knows he fired the gun, he thought he was being threatened, but he tells me that he’s sure Connie will be able to clear this up,” Meyer said. The lawyer said his client was afflicted by “a certain degree of senility.”
Rosy Lee Lockett says there is no way her late mother would have taken money from the man to whom she had been married for 44 years, the man she loved, the man whom in the final 2 years of her life she would not leave overnight in case he needed something and she wasn’t there.
Lockett and her sister were the children of Connie Harrell and her first husband, who had died. About 1942, Connie’s sister introduced Connie to a barber she knew in the small city of Camden, Ark., southwest of Little Rock. The barber was Edward Harrell. A year later Edward, who had five children and whose two previous wives had died, married Connie, and a year after that he picked up stakes and headed for California.
Blacks poured out of the South during World War II, looking for better jobs in the auto factories of Detroit, converted then to making tanks and half-tracks instead of roadsters and sedans, in the steel mills of Indiana, and in the shipyards and defense industry of Southern California.
“We came out here to better our condition,” Edward’s son, Waddie, recalled.
Lockett remembered that during the war years “there was plenty of work” in Southern California and Edward Harrell found a job in construction. Not long after that, Edward sent for Connie and her two daughters. They boarded the train and arrived in Santa Ana 3 days later.
“I’d seen the palm trees and all the stuff in school, and it was really a thrill” to come to California, Lockett remembered. The thrill didn’t last too long, she said with a laugh. “I didn’t like it” too much, Lockett said. “The living arrangements were different. . . . It was just different. At that time, in Santa Ana, there weren’t many black people there. . . . There were only about eight or 10.”
There weren’t many black barbers, either, and blacks in the then-segregated military were happy to find Edward Harrell willing to cut their hair if they could make their way from the Army base then in Santa Ana and the Marine air station at El Toro to the garage of his house.
Lawyer Paul Meyer said that Edward Harrell told him his only prior brush with the law was “for cutting hair without a license, because ‘during the war they were not licensing Negroes to cut hair’ as he puts it; those are his words.”
After the war Harrell continued to work in construction and as a barber. Connie worked as a maid, Lockett said. Lockett and her sister married and moved to Los Angeles.
About 25 years ago, Connie and Edward Harrell both retired. They lived in their house on West 2nd Street in Santa Ana, a 5-minute walk from the Johnson Chapel, the Baptist church where Connie was active. Son Waddie, his wife and children lived only two blocks away.
Lockett said that her mother’s favorite activities after she retired were “going to church, cooking for her friends and family and her husband. She enjoyed being with her children. She was just a lovable person. She loved to make everyone happy. And she loved to entertain . . . having people over, and she would just cook. She loved to cook. She was a great cook . . . cakes, pies, turkey and dressing, cheese and macaroni. You name it and it was good. She also would go with her pastor to visit the sick, pray for them. She loved people and people loved her.”
Edward and Connie traveled periodically, too: trips back to Arkansas to see the friends and relatives who had stayed behind, a journey to New York, and Connie’s trip with church friends to Hawaii.
But as Connie Harrell got older, having hordes of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren over to the house and doing all the cooking got to be too much for her. Lockett and her sister took turns having the dozens of family members over on holidays and special occasions. And the daughters alternated days in telephoning their mother.
As the decades passed and the crime rate rose, the West 2nd Street area became less safe than it had been. There were attempted break-ins at the house. Burglar bars went up on the windows. Edward Harrell kept a .38-caliber pistol in the home.
Last March 31, he used the gun, killing not a burglar, but his wife of 44 years.
Prosecutor Munoz said that from the time he got the case until it was over, it hadn’t gotten any easier for him. Part of the problem was deciding what to do with Harrell.
Wrestling with the question of where to have Harrell serve his sentence, Munoz said, “if he was sentenced to a county jail or state prison, because of his status, his health, he is going to have to be housed in a medical-type ward and given 24-hour supervision.”
Munoz said that brought in the factor of whether the taxpayers should be paying for around-the-clock supervision of a 94-year-old man with no prior history of violent acts. “And that’s what I think is some of the merit in having him sentenced to a care facility under 24-hour supervision with the litany of restrictions that the judge read, and having the family defray those costs until the man passes away.”
But even before the plea and sentencing, Munoz said, some people questioned why the district attorney brought Harrell into court at all.
“I’ve had calls saying, how could I prosecute this man,” Munoz recalled. One lengthy tirade came from a woman who wondered, “ ‘How can you put a 94-year-old man on trial for this? Why don’t you leave him alone?’
“Hey, he killed someone,” Munoz said. “It’s not open season when you get to be 90. You can’t go out . . . and kill people.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.