Angrily proclaiming her innocence and love for her victim to the end, Jean Harris was sentenced to 15 years in prison today for the murder of her lover, Scarsdale diet doctor Herman Tarnower.
The sentence, imposed with an air of regret by Judge Russell R. Leggett, is the mandatory minimum in New York for conviction of second-degree murder, and is not subject to early parole. Harris, 57, the former headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School in McLean, Va., would be 72 at the end of the minimum 15 years.
After the sentencing, Harris was taken quickly from the courtroom and driven in a police car 20 miles north to Bedford, N.Y., site of the state's only maximum security prison for women. There, Leggett said, he hoped her "brilliance" would "bring some light into some other people's lives."
The final act in the public drama of the Harris murder trial was played out in a jammed courtroom after a day of maneuvering by defense lawyers who unsuccessfully sought to overturn the guility verdict on the grounds of "misconduct" by the jury.
When those maneuvers failed, the warriors stepped aside for Harris to make one last angry outcry against what was become of her.
"I did not murder Dr. Herman Tarnower," she said before the sentence was imposed. "I loved him very much."
Dressed in a tailored, mauve suit, Harris leaned forward slightly, her fingers resting on a table before her, as she stood and spoke. Her complexion was pale, an effect of her imprisonment in the Westchester County Jail since her conviction on Feb. 24, but her voice was firm and her head tilted back slightly.
"It is not justice, it is a travesty," she said of her conviction. In all the thousands of pages of testimony from her three-month trial, she said, there was not one indication of her "intentionally having murdered" Tarnower.
She lashed out at the "iron bars" (handcuffs) that had recently been placed on her for a trip outside the county jail. And as for prosecutor George Bolen's description of the deep pain caused to others by Tarnower's death. She showed only contempt.
"No one in the world feels the loss more than I do," she said. "I am not guility."
As Harris sat down, several people in the courtroom -- many of whom had faithfully attended the entire trial -- burst into applause and were scolded by Leggett.
Harris' lawyer, Joel Aurnou, is expected to appeal the conviction. But under New York law, Harris cannot be freed on bail during the appeal process.
The sentencing took place one year and 10 days after Harris, distraught over the impending loss of her lover of 14 years to another, younger woman, shot the doctor in his home near here. Her defense was that the shooting was a "tragic accident," even though Tarnower suffered four gunshot wounds.
The climatic sentencing came in an atmosphere befitting the sensational and protracted trial that preceded it. Sentencing was scheduled for 10 a.m., but it was not until shortly after noon that Harris, the lawyers and the judge appeared in the courtroom.
During this brief appearance, Aurnou announced that he had made an unspecified motion and Bolen asked for time to study it. The lawyers, insisting that they were under a "gag order," refused to discuss the motion with reporters.
Harris and the others reappeared in the courtroom at 3:40 p.m. when the substance of Aurnou's motion was disclosed. In it, the defense lawyer asked that the guility verdict he overturned on the grounds that the jury had acted improperly during its eight days of deliberation by conducting a number of experiments designed to reenact the crime and test the validity of Harris' defense.
There are precedents for such a ruling involving juries, but most involve such "unauthorized conduct" by jurors as a visit to the scene of a crime without the permission of the trial judge.
Leggett quickly dismissed the motion. "Really, this is an attempt to impeach the jury verdict by the tenor of their deliberations and it can't be done," he said.
The mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years was widely expected in the case and Bolen made no recommendation on length of sentence to Leggett. The prosecutor said he was aware of Harris' "prior unblemished record and her career in education."
On the other hand, he noted, Harris had shown no "regret or remorse" for the murder. And, Bolen continued, Tarnower's death had "a devastating impact" on a number of people, for the doctor was, "a thoroughly decent and respected member of the community."
At this point, Harris, who had been sitting with her legs crossed in an apparently relaxed manner, shot up in her seat and said something to Aurnou. A deputy sheriff standing behind her placed a hand on Harris' right shoulder and then she slumped back in her seat.
In imposing the sentence, Leggett called Harris a "brilliant, brilliant woman" and he stressed that the 15-year term was mandatory.
"I wish that the events of March 10, 1980, never took place," he said. "I wish you had never left Virginia."
Leggett added that Harris' abilities would be "most useful" to others in the Bedford prison facility.
Harris' final courtroom appearance in the case lasted 30 minutes. As she left the 10th-floor courtroom, she looked over her shoulder, displaying a tight, nervous smile, before disappearing for her trip to prison.