A Matter of Mercy

updated 01/18/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE NEWS CAME AT A CRITICAL MOMENT, JUST three hours before Jean Harris was scheduled to undergo quadruple-bypass heart surgery at the Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. Shortly before noon on Dec. 29, the phone by her bedside rang. The caller was her cardiologist, Dr. Aristide Haravon. He asked his patient how she was feeling and tried to ease her fears about the impending operation. Just a week before, the 69-year-old Harris had suffered her third heart attack in eight years. Then, ever so gently, the doctor delivered the best medicine he could hope to offer: New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo had just granted Harris clemency in the 1980 shooting death of Dr. Herman Tarnower, Harris's longtime lover and the creator of the popular Scarsdale Diet.

Harris broke into quiet sobs. Cuomo's act of mercy meant that after serving almost 12 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence, she could be out of prison on parole in a month. "She was very emotional, very happy," says Dr. Haravon, who'd been asked to break the news out of concern for Harris's heart condition. "She said she couldn't believe it, that it was incredible."

Indeed, it seemed nearly as incredible as the news almost 13 years ago that Harris, the respected headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School in McLean, Va., had shot and killed Tarnower, a Scarsdale. N.Y. cardiologist, Law enforcement officials said that Harris, furious at Tarnower's apparent rejection of her in favor of a younger woman, Lynne Tryforos, then 38, had pumped four bullets into Tarnower in a jealous rage. Harris maintains that she went to Tarnower's Purchase, N.Y., estate that night for one last conversation with her lover of 14 years before ending her own life, and that Tarnower was shot during a struggle. And despite suggestions that she plea bargain to a lesser crime, Harris refused to waver from that story. Says ardent supporter Joan Rivers: "This is a woman who truly believed in the justice system and truly believed I am innocent, so they will find me innocent.' "

In the years she has spent at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, just 15 miles from the scene of the shooting, Harris has made many influential friends, including Barbara Walters and author Shana Alexander, who wrote Very Much a Lady, the 1983 book about the case. But none has been more instrumental in the drive for clemency than Alice Lacey, 50, a Madeira graduate ('61) who first got to know Harris through alumnae projects when Harris was headmistress. Soon after Harris's conviction in 1981, Lacey helped form the Jean Harris Defense Committee, which raised more than $80,000 to fund Harris's two unsuccessful appeals and published a newsletter about Harris's case. "I thought she was a remarkable woman and wanted to support her any way I could," says Lacey. When Harris's appeals were exhausted, Lacey, a recently divorced mother of three who lives on a Norwich, Vt., farm, took charge of petitioning Governor Cuomo's office for clemency, doing the necessary paperwork and lobbying relentlessly. She also drove the 4½ hours to Bedford Hills each month to bring Harris the fresh vegetables she loves and to rally her spirits. "Alice did 98 percent of the legwork on the clemency," says Leon Friedman, one of Harris's attorneys.

With the help of Harris's sons, David, 42, a Connecticut banker, and Jim, 39, who owns a property management business on Long Island, Lacey had managed to collect more than 25,000 signatures on petitions to Cuomo during the most recent clemency effort, and even won the support of Russell R. Leggett, the judge at Harris's 1980-81 trial. "This was a classic case of extreme emotional disturbance, but Mrs. Harris, because of her own poor judgment, chose not to let the jury have that issue, and as a result, they had to convict her on the top count," says Leggett, now a White Plains attorney, who sentenced Harris to the minimum penalty for second-degree murder.

A model prisoner, Harris has been her own best character witness. In addition to writing three books about prison life, Harris spent her years at Bedford Hills leaching parenting classes to fellow inmates, caring for their children (inmates can keep babies up to 12 months of age at the prison) and helping organize programs that enable inmates' older children to visit their mothers. "She did everything possible to keep the bond between mother and child going," says Sister Elaine Roulet, a Catholic nun who founded the prison's children's center.

"She could have gone up to prison and moped and dug herself into a hole," says Friedman. "Instead, every day she woke up and said. 'What can I do constructive today?' That's the kind of person she is."

Cuomo, who had rejected three previous clemency petitions, accepted this one, he said, because of Harris's work on behalf of other inmates. her "above-average behavioral record" and "her advancing age and emerging medical problems." So far. anyway, few have come forward to disagree. Says Lacey: "Some people feel it was a crime of passion, and then there are a lot of us who don't agree it was intentional at all, but I think finally most agree it's high time she should be out of there."

If Harris is indeed released on parole, as expected, she plans to move to a log cabin she owns in Monroe, N. H., and work with Lacey on administering the nonprofit Children of Bedford Foundation, which she established with the earnings from her books in order to hind private-school educations for children of Bedford Hills inmates.

For now, though, she remains at the Westchester County Medical Center, recuperating from seven hours of heart surgery that Dr. Haravon says went "smoothly with no complications.... She's in good spirits, and she's doing well." Her friends are awaiting her complete recovery before popping any champagne corks. "People have been saying, 'Don't you feel victorious?' but it's hard to feel that way yet," says Lacey. "We're very happy and very grateful, but until Jean is hack on her feel, until she comes through this, it's hard to feel like celebrating."

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