Anthony Harrison, 36, was convicted in 2018 of the first-degree murder of Laura Harrison following a bench trial before McHenry County Judge James Cowlin.
Cowlin also presided over the post-conviction petition proceedings.
Harrison claimed in the petition that his rights were violated when he was not evaluated for mental fitness at the time of the murder. He also said he should have been taken to a mental health institution after he was released from a hospital where he was treated for a self-inflicted stab wound to his neck and subsequently arrested.
He said doctors recommended he be taken from the hospital to an institution for a fitness evaluation. Instead, he was taken to the McHenry County jail where he was “in and out,” still suffering with his mental illness, and at times, not sure of what was going on or that he was charged with killing his wife.
He alleged that his attorney at the time, Assistant Public Defender Kim Messer, violated his rights by not inquiring about his mental health and not ordering a fitness evaluation shortly after he arrived at the jail.
At a hearing held in November, the third and final stage of the post-conviction petition process, Harrison took the stand in shackles and wearing prison-issued garb. Upon questioning by his court-appointed lawyer, Thomas Carroll, Harrison said during his initial court appearances he believes he was unfit.
Harrison claimed that at times he was not understanding his circumstances, what he was saying to the judge, or what decisions he was making about his case. For example, he said, he remembers Messer telling him he was going to plead not guilty but he does not recall actually entering the plea.
During the first few weeks in the jail, Harrison testified, his mental health worsened as he was experiencing audio and visual hallucinations, his anxiety was intensifying and he was placed on suicide watch.
He recalls discussions with Messer about a possible insanity plea or a plea of guilty but mentally ill, Harrison said.
Harrison was eventually examined by a mental health doctor but not evaluated for his mental fitness at the time he killed his wife, Carroll said.
On cross-examination by Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Newman, Harrison said he couldn’t control the hallucinations but he did not tell Messer. He said he told corrections officers.
Newman sought to counter Harrison’s claims of being unfit during this time by highlighting that despite his claims, he recalls conversations with corrections officers. He also noted that Harrison was corresponding with people from jail, including a relative whom he told he did not want to plead insanity, but said nothing about having hallucinations.
Newman further noted that in 2018, when Harrison was now medicated, he said in court that he knew the difference between bench and jury trial and opted for his case to be heard before the judge. Newman said Harrison also knew what he was doing when he waved his rights to an insanity defense and withdrew a previous plea of insanity.
Newman also highlighted the fact that after being convicted, Harrison wrote his own six-page motion for a new trial, made copies for prosecutors and argued it.
Robert Meyer, a licensed clinical psychologist who examined Harrison while he was in the county jail, also testified at Harrison’s hearing in November.
He said he “did not appear” to not know “what was going on.” He was able to provide answers related to facts of the crime, as well as his medical and psychological history and substance use. He was able to make eye contact, follow questions, clearly communicate and contribute to the conversation.
Meyer said though Harrison reported he was experiencing delusions – seeing his wife and hearing voices – he was oriented to present people, place and time and his situation.
On an examination to determine mental health, Meyer said Harrison scored 29 out of 30. A score of 16 or below would be cause for concern, he said.
Meyer said Harrison was “in a bad place,” having “extreme bizarre thoughts” and in need of treatment. He diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder, but did not find he was unfit. Harrison was able to appreciate the criminality of his actions, Meyer said.
“There was no indication he was not fit to stand trial,” Meyer said.
Messer also testified and said Harrison was able to communicate, understand his circumstances and participate in his defense. At no time did she have a “bona fide doubt” as to his fitness or ability to participate, she said.
“He was involved and coherent,” she said.
Harrison is currently being held in the Sheridan Correctional Center in Sheridan. His projected discharge date is June 6, 2059. He would be 73 years old.
He could be eligible for parole in June 2056 at the age of 70, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections website.