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To The Day She Died, Jean Harris Denied Killing The ‘Scarsdale Diet’ Doctor

Convicted Murderer Passed Away Last Weekend In New Haven, Conn., At Age 89
Jean Harris, the woman convicted of murdering "Scarsdale Diet" doctor Herman Tarnower, died on Dec. 23, 2012, in Connecticut at the age of 89. (Photo: CBS 2)

Jean Harris, the woman convicted of murdering “Scarsdale Diet” doctor Herman Tarnower, died on Dec. 23, 2012, in Connecticut at the age of 89. (Photo: CBS 2)

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NEW YORK (CBS 2) — She was seen as both the scorned woman who wanted vengeance, and the woman caught up in a tragic accident.

Jean Harris, the convicted killer of the “Scarsdale Diet” doctor, died Sunday at an assisted living facility in New Haven, Conn., at the age of 89, CBS 2’s Sean Hennessey reported.

The story of the scorned lover killing her cheating partner attracted headlines around the world, yet Harris never wanted the spotlight, and went to her grave insisting she never murdered anyone.

“I feel beyond the question of a doubt that in spite of the terrible tragedy and my involvement in it, I am innocent,” Harris once said.

It was March of 1980 when Dr. Herman Tarnower, founder of the famous “Scarsdale diet,” was shot four times in the bedroom of his Purchase, N.Y., home. Harris and Tarnower had been lovers for years, but the doctor refused to marry her, and, in recent years, he’d been seen with a much younger woman. As the doctor lay dying in his bed, police spotted Harris driving away.

She later told investigators: “I did it … I’ve been through so much hell with him. He slept with every woman he could.”

A jury found her guilty of murdering Tarnower. At sentencing, she addressed the court, telling the judge, “I did not murder Dr. Tarnower. I loved him very much. No one in the world feels his loss more than I do. I’m not guilty.”

The former head mistress of an exclusive girls’ school served a dozen years at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Inside, she counseled female prisoners, organized the prison library and tutored inmates pursuing their high school degrees. She was released from prison in 1993 when then-governor Mario Cuomo granted her clemency. Once free, Harris set up a foundation that raised millions of dollars for scholarships for children of women in prison in New York state and pushed her case that she did nothing wrong.

“I think it’s very important to prove that. It’s important to me. It’s important to my family,” Harris said.

Two movies were made about Harris and what she went through. She spent many of the later years living along a river in New Hampshire.

The following is an excerpt from “The Art of Justice: An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials,” by courtroom artist Marilyn Church and veteran CBS 2 reporter Lou Young:

Often described as “prim,” Jean Harris was the most unlikely of murder defendants.  Police first laid eyes on the slender, middle-aged, headmistress from a Virginia school for girls, driving away from Dr. Herman Tarnower’s home in upscale Westchester County, New York; She claimed she was going for help because the phone was dead.  “There’s been a shooting,” she told arriving officers.  Inside the house they found Tarnower, the 69-year-old bachelor and author of “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet” bleeding through his pajama tops from multiple bullet wounds. A recently fired .32 caliber revolver was in Harris’ glove compartment.  The murder trial that followed was like looking inside a broken heart.

It’s a story of love gone sour.  The divorced Harris and Tarnower had been seeing each other for 14 years and in the winter of 1980 he was moving on to someone new, a lab assistant in her late 30’s.  The cultured, class-conscious Harris apparently fell into full emotional collapse over the development.  At trial she became a surrogate for every discarded wife, every ageing girlfriend, and every middle-aged woman who has watched her mate drift off into the orbit of a younger lover.

The 57 year-old murder defendant found herself in the witness stand ten months after the shooting, offering a physically small presence as she explained her version of events: the tragic result, she said, of her decision to commit suicide and her former lover’s attempt to intervene.  She admitted, writing a long letter to Tarnower in which she referred to her rival as “a psychotic slut,” then making the five-hour drive up from Virginia with the loaded revolver in her purse. Her nocturnal visit to Tarnower’s home, she insisted, was intended to provide “a few quiet minutes with Hy,” before the end.  She says she intended to leave then kill herself but claimed things changed when she found her rival’s negligee in the doctor’s bedroom.  There was an argument, a struggle over the weapon as she tried first to put it to her head, then wrestled with Tarnower for it as it fired again and again. She even described a final conversation with her victim as she helped him to the bed telling him the phone she’d tried to use to call for help had gone dead.  “You’re probably right,” she quoted him as saying then adding her own observation: “It was the only civil thing he said to me that night.”  The doctor died from his wounds at a local hospital.

There were nearly a hundred witnesses called in the case, but one in particular seemed to catch Harris in a lie. Juanita Edwards was an accidental witness to a telephone call Harris made to Tarnower the day he was killed.  A patient of the famous diet doctor, Edwards remembered overhearing parts of a heated exchange on a phone that had been left off the hook in an examining room.  The faint voices, she said were clearly angry.  She remembered references to lying and cheating and Tarnower demanding hours before his death “Goddamn it Jean, I want you to stop bothering me!” Harris said the phone call was to apologize for a letter she’d mailed to him and claimed the conversation ended with an invitation for her to come spend the weekend in Westchester that coming spring.  So, something didn’t fit.

Yes, Jean Harris claimed she still loved the diet doctor, and continued to harbor memories of his affections for her.   In his closing argument defense lawyer Joel Aurnou quoted poetry of love lost and insisted convicting his client of murder would be a final insult to the victim.  “Don’t say he died of as a result of homicidal rage, of some sordid affair,” he pleaded.  “Restore the dignity of Dr. Tarnower, who died trying to save Jean Harris.”

Aurnou’s own attempt to save Harris would ultimately fail because the jury didn’t buy it.  Perhaps they remembered too well the closing argument of prosecutor George Bolen.  “Try pulling the trigger,” he suggested.  “It has 14 pounds of pull.  Just see how difficult it would be to pull double-action, four times by accident.”  It was too difficult apparently.

The jury deliberated eight days before marching into the courtroom in White Plains, New York chilling the defense table by staring straight ahead, refusing to look the correctly dressed defendant in the eyes.  There were tears among the defense team and Jean Harris spoke softly to her attorney before being led away. “Joel,” she said I can’t sit in jail.”

In the twelve years she spent in the New York State Prison system, Jean Harris wrote three books filed multiple appeals and survived two heart attacks. She spent most of that time at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, which is only a short drive from the scene of the crime. She was the quintessential model prisoner, working with the infant children of her fellow inmates and continued to gather supporters long after the publicity of the trial died away. She was freed after Governor Mario Cuomo commuted her sentence down to 15 years to life (from 25 to life) so she could become eligible for parole three years early. Several clemency requests had been rejected, but the Governor finally relented after receiving a petition with thousands of signatures in a campaign lead by her two sons. There was increasing concern about her failing health.  The day she resumed life as a free woman, she was recovering from coronary by-pass surgery.

For the woman known back at the Madeira School for girls as “Integrity Jean,” it seemed fitting but still, somehow incomplete.  She had testified years before that no one really knew her.  “In Westchester,” she said I was a woman in a pretty dress going to dinner with Dr. Tarnower.  In Washington, I was a woman in a pretty dress who was a headmistress.  I was not sure who I was.”  She thought some more and added, “I was a person sitting in an empty chair.” 

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