crimesider

Jean Harris, killer of "Scarsdale Diet" doctor Herman Tarnower, has died

Actor Michael Gross and his wife, Elza, arrive at the premiere of HBO Film's "Mrs. Harris" at the Geffen Playhouse on Feb. 13, 2006, in Los Angeles. Gross has a role in the TV movie which stars Ben Kingsley as Dr. Herman Tarnower and Annette Bening as Jean Harris. GETTY IMAGES/Kevin Winter

Jean Harris
CBS New York
(AP) NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Jean Harris, the girls' school headmistress who spent 12 years in prison for the 1980 killing of her longtime lover, "Scarsdale Diet" doctor Herman Tarnower, has died. Harris was 89.

The case of the scorned woman who claimed the shooting of Tarnower, 69, was an accident, rallied feminists and inspired television movies.

Harris died Sunday at an assisted-living facility in New Haven, her son, James Harris, said Friday.

Her trial for killing Tarnower, the millionaire cardiologist famous for devising the Scarsdale Diet - a weight-loss book and sensation of the 1970s named for the New York suburb where he practiced - brought feminists rallying to her defense.

They pictured her as a woman victimized by a male-dominated society, adrift because she was getting older and her lover of 14 years was brushing her off in favor of his younger office assistant. In addition, they said, she was in the thrall of antidepressant drugs Tarnower had prescribed for her.

The case inspired two made-for-television movies, "The People vs. Jean Harris," which aired not long after her 1981 conviction, and "Mrs. Harris," which ran on HBO in 2006.

Harris always maintained that she went armed to Tarnower's Westchester County estate in Purchase on March 10, 1980, to confront him over his womanizing and kill herself, but unintentionally shot him four times in a struggle over the gun. She later acknowledged at a parole hearing that she was "certainly guilty of something. I caused the man's death."

A jury convicted her of murder, and she was sentenced to 15 years to life.

Her lawyer had unsuccessfully gambled on an all-or-nothing strategy that eschewed an "extreme emotional disturbance" defense and did not allow the jury to consider a lesser charge such as manslaughter.

During the trial, it was assumed that Harris insisted on testifying about the fateful last meeting in Tarnower's bedroom. She later said she would not have taken the stand had her lawyer told her to "keep quiet."

Jurors said afterward it was Harris's own testimony that led them to convict her. They said they tried to re-enact her account of the struggle for the gun and did not find it credible.

As an inmate, Harris criticized authority, chafing under what she saw as arbitrary, counterproductive rules. In books and articles she wrote and in interviews, she advocated reform, both for her own benefit and that of other imprisoned women.

Housed in the honor wing of the Bedford Hills women's prison north of New York City, Harris taught mothering skills to expectant inmates and worked in the Bedford Hills children's center.

She suffered two heart attacks while serving her sentence. She was granted clemency by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo when she underwent heart bypass surgery in December 1992 and was released on parole three weeks later.

She later founded Children of Bedford Inc., a nonprofit organization to provide scholarships and tutoring for children of female prison inmates.


  • Barry Leibowitz

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