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Issues 2 & 3




From 'mercy killing' to 'domestic violence':
Shirley Harrison, the Chicago Media and Not Dead Yet

By Steve Drake

The Disability Community Rallies:
We needed to redefine the case and the circumstances of Shirley Harrison's death.

There were very few facts known at first. That didn't stop the press from trying to tell the story.

The first I heard of Shirley Harrison's violent death was on a WGN news broadcast on New Year's Day. The anouncer said there'd been a "mercy killing" at Christ Hospital -- a husband had allegedly shot his wife to death as she lay in her hospital bed.

Being late for a meeting with friends, I took a minute to call the station and register a complaint for the use of the term "mercy killing." Unfortunately, I was about to get very used to hearing the term in regard to Shirley Harrison's death.

The facts were spare and simple. Shirley Harrison was a 74-year-old woman who'd been admitted to a Chicago area hospital after having a stroke. On New Year's Eve, her husband came into the hospital with a gun and shot her three times in the chest. He then shot himself once. He survived. She didn't.

For two full days, this was all the information available to the public and press regarding the death of Shirley Harrison. Unfortunately, this didn't stop the construction of a story that depicted Shirley Harrison as "suffering," and her death a "mercy killing."

The Daily Southtown, which covers South Chicago, gave the Harrison story the most extensive coverage The nationally-known Chicago Sun-Times came in next in terms of volume coverage of the case. The Chicago Tribune's coverage was minimal.

Day One coverage

The Daily Southtown's coverage began Jan. 2: "Neighbors: Man wanted to end wife's suffering." As might be expected from the headline, the story was one of speculation from neighbors. The Harrisons "didn't mingle with people," said one; still, those quoted seemed confident in describing the Harrisons' relationship, Shirley Harrison's health and emotional status and Harrison's motives for killing her.

One anonymous neighbor said "there was just no hope for her," adding that her husband "just didn't want her to suffer." Another recalled seeing the couple a month previously -- Shirley Harrison, sitting in the car, gave a thumbs down when asked how she was doing. She "had been suffering and was in so much pain," said that one. It didn't seem to occur to the reporter or the neighbor that Shirley Harrison's "thumbs down" could have many explanations -- including one that might mean "Tom's being an asshole today."

It seemed that Southtown reporters were asking specifically about the murder being a "mercy killing." The paper reported that police "would not say whether Harrison shot his wife out of mercy for her suffering." Since it's unlikely that the police would have issued that refusal spontaneously, it's reasonable to assume that they were responding to specific questions asked by reporters.

The January 2 Sun-Times article carried a neutral headline -- "Wife shot to death in hospital." The story was fairly neutral as well, with one exception -- reporter Frank Main's second paragraph: "Police described the woman's death as a possible Śmercy killing,'" The article included several quotes from neighbors describing the Harrisons as "private" people who didn't interact much with their neighbors.

Day Two

"It was very difficult for him to watch her suffer," ran the headline for the Daily Southtown's Jan. 3 story.

Quotes from the Harrisons' parish priest led the story. "It was very difficult for him to watch her suffer," Rev. William Lyon told reporters Alice Hohl and Sara Gadola. Lyon said he saw the Harrisons almost every Sunday at noon mass. "Were it a couple of months ago, when she was well, he would have done nothing to harm her," Lyon added.

The good reverend wasn't finished. "None of us can judge him. That is up to God," he said.

Hohl and Gadola thrust the Harrison case into the broader context of the so-called "right to die" by interviewing Estelle Rogers of the Death with Dignity national center -- a pro-euthanasia group -- and Wesley Smith, author of "Forced Exit" and "Culture of Death." Neither knew the Harrisons; they knew of the particulars of the case only from the reporters who had called to interview them. Both Rogers and Smith discussed Shirley Harrison as though she were terminally ill, medically fragile and close to death; it's probable the reporter led them to believe this.

"They were like 2 little birds together" read the headline of the Sun-Times's Jan. 3 article. The piece, by reporters Kate Grossman and Ana Mendieta, began with quotes from Mary Derda and another neighbor claiming to be "close friends" of the Harrisons; the headline was from Derda: Tom Harrison "did not kill her for malice or meanness. They were like two little birds together." We also learn that Thomas Harrison has diabetes and would only eat food prepared by his wife. Further down, Grossman and Mendieta look at the growing phenomenon of homicide-suicide cases among elderly couples.

The best that can be said about this section is that it introduces the idea, put forth by a local medical authority, that situations like Shirley Harrison's murder are motivated by "feelings of desperation and a lack of control over their own future."

Kate Grossman and Ana Mendieta end their story with a quote from yet another neighbor who "felt very sorry for Tom. He couldn't live without her."

Charges are filed

On January 4, in his hospital room with a judge present at his bedside, Thomas Harrison was charged with first-degree murder. For the first time, the press was given some solid facts about Shirley Harrison's situation, including her alleged "suffering."

The Daily Southtown's Jan. 5 article, its shortest so far, told us that Shirley Harrison had been in a regular hospital room -- not the ICU -- at the time of the shooting, and that Thomas Harrison told several people he wanted his wife to die. He allegedly shot her after sending a nurse to get a sleeping pill for his wife, reported the paper.

The Sun-Times's story that day was longer. Prosecutors at Harrison's bedside bond hearing provided information that for the first time gave readers a different picture: Tom Harrison admitted his wife never asked him to kill her. Readers also learn that she was awake when she was shot to death.

John Gorman, spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, told the Sun Times that Shirley Harrison's doctor "told the defendant that morning that her condition seemed temporary and seemed to be improving," adding that Shirley Harrison had "never complained of pain or suffering to hospital officials, or the defendant." Thomas Harrison was ordered held on a $1 million bond. The Sun-Times story quoted Northwestern University law professor Paul Robinson criticizing the first-degree murder charge and amount of bail ordered in the case.

The Daily Southtown's Jan. 6 story was its first to include prosecutors' statements about the lack of evidence that Shirley Harrison was suffering or in pain. Harrison's pastor, taking a different tone in this story, told Southtown reporter Alice Hohl that Tom Harrison may have had a mental breakdown trying to deal with his wife's latest setback.

Hohl's story gives us more quotes from area residents. The president of a conservative neighborhood group is the only one to give an unequivocal endorsement to the first-degree murder charge and the high bail amount. A woman identified as active in a local branch of the AARP is highly critical of the decision to charge Thomas Harrison with murder. But she also appears confused, conflating Shirley Harrison's murder with voluntary suicide and voluntary mercy killing -- not surprising given the nature of the press coverage she'd read over previous days.

The disability community rallies

Press coverage on the Harrison case clearly required a response.

But response, in and of itself, wouldn't be enough. We needed to redefine the case and the circumstances of Shirley Harrison's death. In order to do that, we needed to identify key portions of the press coverage that could be held up to easily-understood criticism.

The first item we identified was the consistent and persistent labeling of Shirley Harrison's murder as a "mercy killing," carried out in response to her "suffering."

And virtually everyone -- neighbors and pastor alike‹ talked about this as a tragedy for Thomas Harrison. No one was saying that the real tragedy was Shirley's murder.

The prosecutors gave us some of what we needed to debunk both of these. The other item we could use was the fact that Shirley Harrison was awake when she was shot to death.

Another piece suggested itself when the hospital called the event a "domestic shooting." Could it be that this was really just another case of domestic violence?

Before what would be the first of several hearings in the Harrison case (with more to come), NDY issued a press release:

Not Dead Yet and other national disability rights groups have been watching with growing anger and horror as the murders of disabled people of all ages have occurred with what seems like ever-increasing frequency. The news coverage of these tragedies is also a cause for deep concern. Accused murderers of disabled people are often portrayed by reporters as loving, caring individuals acting out of compassion. The Chicago media coverage of the Harrison murder is no exception to this trend.

Specifically, the coverage in the Daily Southtown and the Chicago Sun-Times has been disturbing to read. From the very first story in the Southtown, the speculations of unnamed police officers, neighbors, and a member of the clergy were quoted -- all suggesting that Shirley Harrison was "suffering" and that her murder could be described as a "mercy killing." The Sun-Times published quotes from unnamed police sources that suggest reporters may have actually suggested that police label this murder a "mercy killing." The Sun-Times recently published a series of articles on elder abuse and should know that it's unwise to rush to label murders of old, ill or disabled women as "mercy killings."

In fact, according to the prosecutors, Shirley Harrison did not ask to die. She did not complain of suffering or pain. Her condition was expected to improve.

Domestic violence is all too common in our culture. If the victim of that kind of violence happens to be old, ill or disabled, that's no reason to assume the violence was an act of mercy. Shirley Harrison's last moments were spent looking at a gun pointed at her by a person she thought she could trust. It's hard to imagine a more horrible way to die. The murders of old, ill and disabled people need to be treated in the same way as any other murders -- labeling these murders as understandable or excusable can encourage such killings -- and deprive all other potential victims of the equal protection of the law and, perhaps their lives.

Of course, the press release wasn't enough. We had to have people at the hearings. And we did. Every time -- through cancellations and reschedulings.

And it has had an impact.

We were fortunate in that the reporter the Southtown assigned to the hearing, Michelle Mullins, was someone who had not covered the case before. So she had little reason to feel defensive about the coverage. Her Jan. 17 story of the initial hearing included this:

At Wednesday's court hearing, a group of people from the activist group Not Dead Yet of Forest Park said they plan to attend court proceedings out of support for Shirley Harrison. The group's members said Thomas Harrison does not deserve sympathy.

Not Dead Yet, a group of people with disabilities, advocates against mercy killings and assisted suicides.

"Shirley Harrison did not ask to die," said the group's president, Diane Coleman. "Our sympathy is for Shirley Harrison. Her last moments were spent looking at a gun pointed at her by a person she thought she could trust.

"If the victim happens to be old, ill or disabled, that's no reason to assume the violence was an act of mercy," she said. "We want equal protection of the law for her."

On January 23, after the second hearing, the local CBS affiliate news radio station featured NDY's comments on the Harrison case as one of its top stories:

ANCHOR: Members of two disabled rights groups were in a Bridgeview courtroom today listening to the case of Thomas Harrison. Harrison's accused of shooting and killing his ailing wife at Christ Hospital New Year's Eve, then turned the gun on himself in a botched murder/attempted suicide. Disabled activists say what Harrison did cannot be labeled as a mercy killing. WBBM's Keith Johnson has the story:

KEITH JOHNSON: Carol Cleigh, with the group Progress Center for Independent Living, says Shirley Harrison was not suffering and her death should not be described as a "mercy killing."

CAROL CLEIGH: We have to be real careful that this gets treated like any other homicide. This should not be treated either one way or the other -- different from other homicides. And he shouldn't be treated any different one way or the other from any other defendant.

KEITH JOHNSON: Disability activists say Harrison did not ask to die and her condition was expected to improve. Diane Coleman, head of the group Not Dead Yet, says Shirley Harrison was a victim of domestic violence.

DIANE COLEMAN: The last thing she saw was her own husband pointing a gun at her and pulling the trigger. And because she was in a hospital bed, there was nothing she could do to get away.

KEITH JOHNSON: Thomas Harrison's preliminary hearing was postponed. His niece told the judge she has not been able to find a lawyer for her uncle. The judge has given her until February 5th to find one.

The saga continues.

We are all heartily sick of going to the court on almost a weekly basis, sitting for hours before yet another delay is scheduled. But we're committed to doing it as long as it takes. We cannot afford to allow the press to call the murder of old, ill and disabled people "mercy killings."

The reasons they do this could be the topic of a much longer article. But it is something we can influence. And we must influence it -- not just for the sake of this Shirley Harrison, but for all the potential Shirley Harrisons in our future.

Steve Drake is the Research Analyst for Not Dead Yet.

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