Making good on a second chance

We don't always get a second chance in life, which is why an account of one man's turnaround is so intriguing to us. As Barry Petersen reports in our cover story, it all began with this letter in our inbox:

Inside the envelope was a typewritten letter that Melissa Harris wrote to us about her husband, David ... about his past.

"He was an ex-convict, imprisoned for seven years ..."

But also about the David of today.

"I've seen him work 50 to 60 hours a week at an office, attend law school three nights a week and travel throughout the state of Tennessee to teach pre-release classes to inmates who will soon re-enter our society."

The story intrigued us so much that we went to Nashville, Tenn., to find out more about the crime, the ex-con and the woman who loves him.

David Harris said, "You made me tear up" as Melissa read the letter. "That's the first time I've seen or heard that letter."

"What did you think about what she said?" Petersen asked.

"Very emotional and moving because that letter encapsulates not just a 10- or 12-year journey but probably a lifetime journey," he said.

At 39, David Harris' past is written on a million faces in prison ... raised by a single mother in a poor family, he turned good grades and football prowess into athletic and academic scholarships at a Tennessee state college.

But he couldn't hack it. He dropped out the first semester, worked a few jobs for several years, married, had a child, divorced.

Then he turned to alcohol and drugs and committed nine armed robberies within five weeks to feed his habit, holding up places like a Subway sandwich franchise.

He described the M.O.: "Typically, two or three individuals walk in the door. One, two, three, or none may actually have a gun to show."

"Did you ever have a gun to show?" asked Petersen.


"So, you were armed?"

"Sure, absolutely," Harris said.

"Tie people up?"


He was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to 20 years.

Petersen asked Harris what went through his mind when he walked into prison and the cell door slams: "Is your life over?"

"Definitely. In the early stages, that is the mindset - that door closes, and it probably will never open again," he said.

But David changed his story.

He took correspondence college courses in prison, getting halfway to a degree when he was paroled and walked out of the gate in 2004.

Two days later he found a full-time job cleaning up garbage at a restaurant and on his days off went to college full-time.

It was a second chance, and he vowed to make good, beginning by finishing college.

Then, four years of law school at night, while working as a paralegal and receptionist by day for a group of lawyers.

"I trust him explicitly," said Brett Gipson, a former cop and now an attorney. "It gives us a little bit of hope, you know? 'Cause so many of our cases just seem hopeless. The people seem hopeless, we do everything we can to sort of get them a second chance or get them a third chance sometimes, and they blow it, you know?

"This is a guy who did a horrible thing. He took his second chance and he's made the absolute best of it so far," Gipson said. "I know lawyers that wouldn't do as good a job as David will."

Two years ago Harris met Melissa when he responded to her posting on a free blog.

They got together, fell in love ... but he waited five months before telling her about his prison past.

She said she wasn't annoyed at all.

"I don't know if there's a protocol to follow to tell someone like that," said Melissa. "There's definitely no Hallmark card that says, 'By the way, I was in prison for a long time.'"

"Why so long?" asked Petersen. "Were you afraid that she'd walk away?"

"Of course," David said. "If this person with whom I'm sitting now knew my background, would they be talking to me? Would they be looking in the eye? Would they run away screaming? So that motivates your thought process in every new relationship."

But Melissa didn't walk away, and last October they were married.

Now she runs her own housecleaning business - money that helped when she decided to go back to college.

Like David, she became the first in her family to get a college degree, with a little push:

"One thing David takes away from you is an excuse, every time," she laughed. "Which is infuriating, but awesome. Because he says, 'Well, why don't you get your degree?' And so, like I like to do, I said, 'Well, we don't have any money.' And he said, 'Well, apply for a loan.' 'Well, I don't have the time.' 'You can make time, just go two days a week.'

"And everything you tell David, he's like, 'No, you can do it.' You know, he doesn't wanna hear your crap."