The Jean Harris Case
The Scarsdale Letter at Trial
Much of Bolen's cross-examination of Harris was a build-up to his reading of the Scarsdale Letter. He asked her if that letter had a lot to do with Dr. Tarnower. "It had a lot to do with my very deep affection for him," Harris said. The reply had to please the prosecutor for he well knew that it was far from a love letter. He asked if it had to do with another woman and again Jean Harris' answer helped to bury her. "Yes," she said, "but more to do with my own integrity in being touched by the other woman than by the other woman herself." He asked Harris if she considered herself "publicly humiliated by the fact that Dr. Tarnower was seeing Lynne Tryforos in public" and she answered that "I thought he was publicly humiliated much more than I."
Finally, Bolen read the letter in its entirety to the court. The judge turned his face away from the jury so they could not see his expression. As noted at the beginning of this article, the letter detailed wrongs Harris claimed to have suffered at the hands of Lynne Tryforos and repeatedly called Tryforos by vulgar names. It included passages vividly revealing Harris's deeply wounded self-image. People gasped when hearing that Harris wrote that, "to be jeered at and called 'old and pathetic' made me seriously consider borrowing $5,000 just before I left New York and telling a doctor to make me young again -- to do anything but make me not feel like discarded trash. I lost my nerve because there was always the chance I'd end up uglier than before."
When Bolen finished reading this extraordinary epistle, the entire courtroom seemed to be in shock. One juror had tears on her cheeks.
Jean Harris was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Tarnower because, at that time in New York, first-degree murder applies only to the killing of a police officer or corrections officer on duty. To be found guilty on this charge, the jury must determine that the prosecutor proved that the defendant consciously intended to cause the death of the victim.
Normally, the jury would have been offered the option of first-degree, or voluntary, manslaughter. A person is guilty of first-degree manslaughter when, with intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he or she causes the death of that person or when he or she causes the death under circumstances that are not murder because the defendant acted under extreme emotional disturbance. The jury was not given the option of voluntary manslaughter in the Jean Harris case. Joel Aurnou requested that the judge not include it. He explained his reasoning to a reporter before the trial started, "Usually it's the defense lawyer who asks to have lesser included offenses charged. In this instance, the DA will ask it, and I will insist that they not be. I want to force that jury to choose either murder or acquittal no compromise."
The jury was given two lesser charges, however. One was second-degree, or involuntary, manslaughter. A defendant is guilty of this charge if he or she engaged in reckless conduct resulting in another person's death. The other "down" charge was criminally negligent homicide. To be convicted on this charge, a defendant must have acted in a manner he or she failed to perceive had a great, legally unjustifiable risk of harm to another person. The failure to perceive the risk must be grossly deviant from the perception a reasonable person would make under similar circumstances.
In his emotional summation to the jury, Joel Aurnou told them, "Do not compromise [The death of Herman Tarnower] was a tragic accident Don't compromise! Search for the truth - we can take it!"
The jury took its duty seriously. They deliberated for eight full days.
Their verdict: "Guilty of murder in the second-degree."
On the day that she was to be sentenced, Jean Harris sat in the courtroom ashen faced, shrunken, and trembling. When the judge asked if she had any statement to make before he passed sentence, she replied that she did.
She rose unsteadily to her feet but when she spoke her voice quavered but never broke. "I wasn't to say that I did not murder Dr. Herman Tarnower," she began, "that I loved him very much and I never wished him ill, and I am innocent as I stand here. For you or for Mr. Bolen to arrange my life so that I will be in a cage for the rest of it, and that every time I walk outside I will have iron around my wrists" -- here she paused to hold up her hands together as if in handcuffs -- "is not justice; it is a travesty of justice. The people in that jury were told Mr. Bolen will prove to you beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Harris intended to kill Dr. Tarnower. In their many statements, and a number of them decided to become public figures now, and they have written for the newspaper and they have been on television shows and they have been on radio shows in every single statement they have said, in essence, Mrs. Harris took the stand and didn't prove to us she was innocent, and therefore we find her guilty. In the 10,000 pages of testimony that have been taken here, there isn't a page, there isn't a paragraph and there isn't a sentence in which anyone suggests, in which the prosecution suggests, how I was guilty of intentionally hurting Dr. Tarnower. And certainly for [Mr. Bolen] to suggest that he cannot adequately articulate how people feel the loss, that is really gratuitous, because he certainly doesn't have to explain it to me. No one in the world feels that loss more than I do. I am not guilty, your Honor."
At the end of her impassioned statement, there was a brief burst of applause from some spectators and Judge Leggett gaveled for order.
Harris sat down. Judge Leggett had no choice but to sentence Jean Harris to spend from fifteen years to life in prison.
Jean Harris turned to her attorney and said, in a voice full of pain and despair, "I can't just sit in jail, Joel."