Second chance granted: While awaiting freedom, death arrives for inmate

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

John Harris was sent to prison for life in 1998 for fatally shooting an acquaintance in the head at close-range with a shotgun after a drunken argument. 

Then 70, Harris killed Rickey Nobles on Sept. 15, 1997, in the driveway of the Pontiac home of a friend.

John Harris

Harris, a World War II veteran who worked for General Motors, had been arguing with Nobles, 43, about his own service in the Army on the day of the killing. The two men shared a mutual friend but weren’t friends with one another, officials noted during Harris' May 31, 2018, commutation hearing. 

Harris, who was diagnosed with end-stage dementia, was incoherent during portions of the hearing. He was sentenced to life in prison for the crime on July 14, 1998. 

When asked why he was ready for release, he said: "I don't know. I don't do nobody harm."

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The 92-year-old was granted commutation by then-Gov. Rick Snyder late last year. Harris had been in the Duane Waters Health Center, a long-term medical care center for prisoners with serious health conditions operated by the Michigan Department of Corrections. 

He was awaiting placement in an outside medical facility and had not yet been paroled when he died on Feb. 25, state corrections officials said. 

On the day of Nobles' killing, Harris left a gathering in the garage of friend Frank Bell's home in Pontiac. Later, he came back with a shotgun and "called Rickey out," he said. 

Harris noted he'd spent time serving in both the Navy and Army. He and Nobles argued over "whether there were black folks in the Army," he confirmed during the hearing. 

Harris, who was black, claimed that Nobles hit him on the head with a bottle, “a big one.” Later, he shot Nobles, who “fell like a tree,” Harris said last spring.

According to Oakland County court records, Harris walked to the garden of his nearby home after the shooting and was then seen returning inside without the shotgun.

Police went to the home and arrested Harris, who was in his bathrobe and appeared to have just woken. When they asked if he had a gun he directed them to his garage where a .22 rifle was found, but he denied having a shotgun.

The next day, acting on a tip, police technicians found the shotgun, unloaded with the safety off, in the garden. 

Harris said soon after the killing he could not remember the shooting but did describe incidents in which Nobles insulted him, including accusing Harris of having fought in “white men’s wars, working with the white police concerning parking on the street, having done nothing about the Million Man March, and considered himself white.”

During his public hearing last fall, Harris said “I feel pretty low down” about shooting Nobles, but, at the hearing, couldn’t say why. He also couldn’t speculate on how Nobles' family felt about the killing.

At Harris' trial, a psychologist had testified for the defense in support of an insanity defense.

Dr. Firoza VanHorn said Harris had a difficult life being raised “dirt poor” in Mississippi by an abusive father who was a veteran of both World War II and Korea. VanHorn testified Harris suffered a “delusional belief” that he was in danger, a condition so severe that it rendered him psychotic in this particular episode and “totally out of touch with reality.”

The prosecution provided rebuttal from psychologists who had examined Harris and found no abnormalities, and said Harris “answered questions relevantly and concisely."

Then-Oakland County Circuit Judge Deborah Tyner instructed the jury on insanity, guilty but mentally ill, and several lesser offenses including second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and careless discharge of a firearm causing death.

In the end, Harris was convicted as charged. 

According to testimony referenced last year at Harris' commutation hearing, Bell identified Nobles that day as the victim and told police "I can't believe John shot him. This tears my heart out.”

Bell said he had left the pair alone and went upstairs to his garage. He reported returning, hearing the loud boom and then saw Nobles in a pool of blood. 

Officials cited a victim impact statement from Nobles’ wife, Virginia Nobles, who she said she’d been devastated by her husband’s death. They’d been married 15 years and had two children. She could not be reached for comment.

Harris' health challenges were detailed during the hearing and ranged from dementia to vascular disease. He also had a pacemaker, a history of strokes, congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease and coronary artery disease.

Officials noted Harris required total care in a nursing home upon release and hospice center for the end of his life.

He didn’t say anything about his experience in prison during the hearing other than “I want to get out.” 

Staff writer Mike Martindale contributed.