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Willie Mae Harris, a 72-year-old woman whose life sentence for killing her abusive husband has become the subject of public calls for mercy, had her parole application approved by the Arkansas Parole Board on Monday.

The decision by the Parole Board followed the required waiting period since Gov. Asa Hutchinson commuted Harris' life sentence in early March.

Still Harris, who is blind, must wait for officials in Texas and Arkansas to approve of her plan to relocate to Dallas to live with her daughter before Harris can be released, according to her attorney.

The Parole Board's decision was first reported by The Appeal, an online publication that has written extensively on Harris' case and her bids for clemency.

"She has been very excited since March," said Harris' New Orleans-based attorney, Lee Eaton. "Ecstatically excited."

Harris' case has also been taken up by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Mike Masterson, who has recounted Harris' claim that she shot her husband, Clyde, by accident while trying to fight him off with a pistol that she used for protection. Harris and her daughter, Silvia Harris, have said Clyde Harris was abusive and had grown more violent in the weeks leading up to his death in 1985.

Brooke Cummings, the executive administrator for the Parole Board, said the vote was 5-0 in favor of Harris' release. The board released 50 letters that it received supporting Harris' application, four of which were handwritten.

In her letter to the Parole Board, Silvia Harris wrote that her mother has two children, nine grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren to be with when she is released.

"My home is safe and ready for her arrival," Silvia Harris wrote. "We have made proper adjustments for her comfort. I'm asking you all to not only grant her parole but if there's any way possible to release her in a timely manner, please do so."

Eaton, Harris' attorney, said Texas has 45 days to review Harris' transfer to the Dallas area. Eaton said she expected to petition officials in Austin and Little Rock to expedite their reviews of Harris' plan, noting that her age and prior health problems make her especially susceptible to the covid-19 epidemic that has infected more than 1,000 Arkansas inmates.

"She's sitting in a prison in a pandemic next to people that she cannot even see," Eaton said, adding that Harris has taken to seldom leaving her bunk as a precaution against the virus.

Harris is in the women's section of the Wrightsville Unit in Pulaski County. No cases of the coronavirus have been reported at that prison.

Meanwhile this week, the Parole Board also approved the parole application of Robert Ray Johnson Jr., a nonviolent offender whose 86-year sentence for drug charges was also commuted by the governor in March.

Like Harris, Johnson must have a parole plan approved by prison officials before he can be released, according to Cummings. The vote was also 5-0 in favor of his release.

Johnson, 36, is being held in the Hempstead County jail as part of a work program. He has been in prison since 2008.

Politics on 05/22/2020

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