Second chance granted: Shopkeeper never far from killer's mind

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Donald Harris was a teenager who fatally shot an unsuspecting shop owner and spent 42 years in prison.

Donald Harris entered the criminal justice system as a drug-addicted teenager after orchestrating a robbery that took a shop owner's life.

Harris, now 62, recounted the hastily planned May 7, 1975, hold-up that landed him in prison for life during a hearing before a representative of the state's parole board last fall, as he made a bid for release.

Soon after, Gov. Rick Snyder signed off on Harris' request for a commutation. 

"I always told myself that when the lord felt that I was right, he would open the door," he said in a recent interview with The News. "And he opened the door for me March 26 after serving 42 years and four months in prison."

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For Harris, the weeks following his release were filled with joy in the simple things: riding in cars, reading street signs and playing with his dogs. 

At age 18, Harris, armed with a gun, fired multiple shots at John Anthony, who owned a neighborhood store. The unsuspecting Anthony was holding a slab of bologna when Harris jumped the deli counter and fired. He then watched as Anthony crumpled to the floor in front of his young daughter, according to transcripts. 

Harris said he doesn't think about the crime every day. But it's never far from his mind. 

"I wish that I could maybe, one day, visit his grave and tell him how sorry I am," he said.

Harris said he's living with a younger sibling in Detroit and working part-time for an elder care service provider. 

His release was met with resistance from the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, which argued in a September letter to the state parole board that Harris had spent most of his life institutionalized and his past behavior had been "harmful to himself and deadly to others."

The letter was the only submission on record, opposing Harris' release. 

Harris understands the position of prosecutors but said he and other ex-offenders should be given the chance to prove they've changed.

"You can't feel a certain way toward them for doing what they are supposed to do," he said. "You still shouldn't allow that to stop you from changing."

Harris' interaction with law enforcement began at age 12 when he entered the former Boys Training School, a high-security treatment center for youthful offenders. 

Donald Harris

He grew up near Watson and Rush around the corner from the Brewster Projects where his father sold drugs out of the family home. 

He'd finished eighth grade but spent most of his time skipping class, running the streets and stealing, he said. 

Harris entered prison and spent the first two decades engaging in the same activities that brought him there. 

But in 1988, he got a GED and saw it as a turning point. Years later, he was introduced to Chance for Life, a program that teaches inmates about conflict resolution and accepting responsibility for their crimes, among other skills. 

He then moved around to various prisons to teach other inmates.

"Chance for Life opened my eyes to taking responsibility," he said. "Every choice that I make today affects tomorrow."