By Iver Peterson - The New York Times
June 23, 2001
In a trial drenched in the brutal realities of
prison life, a convicted killer was acquitted yesterday of
stomping a fellow condemned prisoner to death.
During the three-week trial, Robert F. Gold,
the lawyer for the acknowledged jailhouse killer, Ambrose Harris,
persuaded the 12 members of the jury that Mr. Harris, 49, had
reason to believe he was being set up by guards to be attacked by
Robert Simon, a three-time murderer. The two were already enemies
when they were placed together, against regulations, in a
recreation cage at New Jersey State Prison in September 1999.
During the trial in State Superior Court in
Freehold, prosecutors were not able to undermine witness testimony
that Mr. Simon, who bragged of having murdered an inmate in a
Pennsylvania jail, attacked first. And there was also no dispute
that Mr. Harris, who is sentenced to die for killing a young woman
he kidnapped, punched and kicked Mr. Simon to death. The attack
ended with Mr. Harris's jumping off a table onto Mr. Simon's
It was the first case of a death-row killing in
the state's modern history, the Mercer County prosecutor, Daniel
G. Giaquinto, said during the trial.
To support his contention that Mr. Harris, a
huge, bullet-headed man, would be afraid of the slightly smaller
Mr. Simon, Mr. Gold stressed that Mr. Harris had been in
administrative segregation from other prisoners for hitting a
guard, and should not have been placed in a recreation cage with
other prisoners while the death-row cells were fumigated.
Mr. Gold also called witnesses to testify that
Mr. Simon, once a member of a white-supremacist motorcycle gang,
had repeatedly taunted Mr. Harris, who is black. And the defense
went on to persuade the jury that Mr. Harris believed he had been
handed over to Mr. Simon by the guards.
''You had to look at this from Harris's point
of view, and his honest and reasonable belief that he was getting
set up'' Mr. Gold said after the trial.
Mr. Giaquinto, the prosecutor, tried to remind
the jury of the brutality of Mr. Harris's attack, and of the fact
that he kept stamping and jumping on Mr. Simon's head long after
Mr. Simon had ceased to move or to pose a threat. Mr. Harris also
ignored the guards, who were not allowed to enter the cage with
the prisoners without permission, screaming for him to stop.
Mr. Giaquinto maintained that Mr. Harris
persisted to make a reputation for himself among the inmates.
Mr. Gold attacked the prosecution's argument
that the attack had lasted too long to be considered self-defense
by presenting testimony by Craig Haney, a professor of psychology
at the University of California at Santa Cruz and an expert on
prison life. Mr. Haney introduced the term ''prisonization'' to
describe a mindset among convicts that they must defend themselves
to the death or face becoming a victim.
''Prison -- I don't care what prison -- they're
dangerous places,'' Mr. Gold said in an interview after the
verdict. ''These guys learn that they have to watch their backs,
their fronts, their sides and at the slightest sign of weakness,
or they're a victim.''