Jean Harris, the convicted murderer of Scarsdale diet doctor Herman Tarnower, applied for diability payments from the Social Security Administration after the fatal shooting on grounds that she was mentally unable to work.
Harris' application was turned down before the jury returned its guilty verdict Tuesday, when she automatically became ineligible for any kind of federal benefits. A 1980 amendment to the Social Security Act. enacted after convicted killer David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam") began receiving disability payments, bars federal benefit payments to felons.
The New York Daily News reported yesterday that Harris had applied for and received the disability payments, but her chief lawyer, Joel Aurnou, denied that she had received any payments. Said Aurnou: "I have no knowledge that she received any disability payments. There was an application made but I understand there were no payments made."
Still refusing to eat full meals in the Westchester County Jail, the 57-year-old Harris apeared to be adjusting somewhat to life in prison. She agreed to work in the prison library arranging books by their titles. Harris did not volunteer for the job but neither was she ordered to do it.
"This is not a work detail," Dr. Edward Allen, medical officer for the prison said. "I suggested it to Mrs. Harris. She accepted it and this is very encouraging."
Harris has not eaten solid food since she was imprisoned Tuesday night, instead nibbling on snacks and sipping milk and tea. On Wednesday night, she shared pita bread with the prison's warden, Norwood Jackson, who said the bread was brought to her by her son David and his wife Kathleen.
"I had a piece of the bread with her," Jackson said, "so nothing's indicated that she's going to starve herself."
Harris was convicted of second-degree murder, a charge that carries a prison sentence of at least 15 years and as much as life. She will be sentenced March 20 by Judge Russell Leggett.
In a radio interview yesterday, Aurnou called Harris' failure to eat prison food a "hunger strike." In the interview on the "Barry Gray Show" (WMCA, New York), Aurnou said: "She felt every reason she ever had for living was gone. There was nothing left. She felt it was the only way to die left for her. She wanted to restore her intergrity but that was taken from her with the verdict. We have been trying to restore in her the need to stay alive so we can proceed with her appeal."
The Daily News said after interviews with the jurors that Harris was her "own worst enemy." The News said the jurors agreed that Harris hurt herself on the witness stand more than any evidence the prosecution introduced at the trial.
"It was Jean Harris' testimony that convicted her of murder," juror Marie Jackson said. "The shooting couldn't have happened the way Mrs. Harris said it did. It was intent, intent, intent."
Said juror Lisa Zummer: "If only she hadn't gotten on the stand, I think that's what did it." Echoed juror Geneva tyler: "There were too many contradictions in her testimony, like her jealousy. If she hadn't taken the stand, she would have ben better off. Her own testimony damaged her severely."