Bound to a wheelchair, suffering from severe dementia and unable to care for himself, a doctor convicted of killing Cal Poly’s library director 36 years ago will attempt to gain his freedom during his ninth parole hearing Friday.
Due to his deteriorating health, however, Howell Petrey Harris, 90, isn’t likely to attend his hearing, which will be held at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. And if awarded a release date, it’s not clear what would happen to him.
“(Keeping him in prison) may be the most humane thing to do,” said Ron von Felden, an attorney who represented Harris during his criminal case.
Harris was convicted of shooting Norman D. Alexander, 49, once in the head after confronting Alexander in a Cal Poly parking lot on Jan. 15, 1979.
“He formed this opinion that the Cal Poly librarian was having an affair with his wife, which was totally false,” said Dan Hilford, the now-retired prosecutor who convicted Harris.
The case received considerable attention due to the public location of the murder, Harris’ background and the fact that two of his teenage sons were reportedly at or near the crime scene — including one who initially faced murder charges as well.
“I handled a lot of murder cases over the years,” Hilford said. “This one has stood out for lots of reasons.”
According to probation reports that were filed before Harris’ sentencing, he was a “very jealous” and “extremely emotionally immature” person. The son of an architect, he earned a master’s degree in chemistry and psychology from Southern Methodist University and eventually earned his doctorate in medicine from the University of Innsbruck in Austria. While he was an intern for a year at Newark City Hospital in New Jersey, he never practiced medicine. His wife, Mary, a former senior assistant librarian, was the financial provider of the Harris home.
After Alexander and Mary Harris attended a business luncheon together, Howell Petrey Harris became convinced that the two were having an affair.
On a wet morning in January, Harris approached Alexander, who was holding an umbrella, as he stood in a Cal Poly parking lot. After Harris fired one .22-caliber bullet into Alexander’s forehead, the librarian fell to the curb.
“He basically executed this guy,” Hilford said. “He just hunted this guy down and murdered him.”
Mary Harris had begun working at the library in 1969 but was no longer employed there at the time of the shooting.
Three days after the murder, police arrested Howell Petrey Harris, then 55, and his 17-year-old son, Hank Harris, in San Diego, where the family had immediately moved after the shooting.
While some questioned Howell Petrey Harris’ mental health, Hilford said mental problems weren’t severe enough for him to pursue an insanity defense. “He seemed like he was lucid but in his own world.”
Witness testimony sometimes conflicted as to what had occurred. Some testimony had Hank standing next to his father when the shooting occurred. Others said it was another son, Dean, 14. But Hank Harris — a straight-A student with no criminal past — was charged, and for eight months, he faced the prospect of life in prison.
“There’s no greater burden than defending an innocent person charged with murder,” said Don Ernst, who defended Hank Harris.
Not wanting his son to face life in prison, Howell Petrey Harris wrote a confession letter addressed to the court, proclaiming, “I acted completely alone in committing this crime, and no one else was involved in anyway whatsoever.” Based on his confessions and other evidence, Hilford said, there was enough reasonable doubt to dismiss charges against Hank Harris.
No one knew why Harris had his sons with him the day of the murder.
“To bring your kids into something like that, that’s horrific,” Hilford said.
Immediately after his release from prison, Hank Harris told reporters he wasn’t bitter and planned to go to college in San Diego. A Howell Hank Harris who graduated from San Diego State in 1984 went on to become Shell Energy’s vice president of North America. Neither Hank nor Dean Harris could be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, during Howell Petrey Harris’ sentencing, he told the court the murder was God’s will.
“The Lord Jesus put me in the Cal Poly parking lot with a pistol in my hand,” The Tribune reported him saying.
Since then, he has wavered on whether he was responsible, at times saying it was Alexander who came with the gun that day. In a 2010 parole hearing, he again referred to a possible affair, according to parole transcripts.
“The man was coming in and tearing up my family, so what could I do?” he said. “I couldn’t sit back and take it.”
Ironically, according to the attorneys involved in the case, it was well-known on campus that Alexander was gay, even though he continued to live with his wife out of respect for their children.
“Everybody knew the motive had no basis,” von Felden said.
Alexander’s sexual orientation, never publicized during the criminal case, made it clear, Hilford said, that Harris was just paranoid.
“(Alexander) wouldn’t have had an affair with the wife,” he said.
Since 1995, Harris has been totally medically disabled, according to a transcript from his 2013 hearing. In 2000, he attempted suicide. And in 2011, according to the most recent parole hearing, it became increasingly difficult to communicate with him.
“He urinates on the floor and on himself,” deputy commissioner Ed Alvord said at the 2013 hearing. “He throws his food and at times prefers to lie naked in his bed. ... It’s anticipated he would require virtually full-time medical (care) in any placement care if he were to be released.”
Harris’ attorney at the time, Brian Waderman, said Harris no longer poses a threat to anyone but himself. Harris’ condition is so bad, he said, Harris couldn’t even attend the hearing.
The District Attorney’s Office has submitted a letter opposing Harris’ release. While rejecting his last parole, the board concluded that Harris had not accepted full responsibility for his actions and did not have realistic plans for his release.
“He seemed to lack some remorse toward the victim’s family,” said commissioner Arthur Anderson during the 2013 hearing.
While he was denied parole for three years, the board decided to advance his hearing after reviewing its last decision and Harris’ conduct and activities since, said Luis Patino, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
While Hilford said Harris should be treated humanely, he always figured the convicted killer would die in prison.
“I have no sympathy for him — for what he did,” Hilford said. “He ruined lives, so why should society give him a nod?”
Patino said he could not discuss Harris’ health issues due to privacy laws and would not know what his post-release plans would be until a hearing was completed.
A native of South Dakota, Alexander oversaw the planning and construction of the Robert E. Kennedy Library, which was completed a year and a half after his death. He was director of the library for just over two years.
Today, a plaque in his honor adorns a reading room named after him in the library’s special collections and archives.