Last Updated Jan 24, 2021 2:09 AM EST
In January 2020, Dawn Beasley received a phone call that changed her life — and changed the course of a murder trial.
Carl Harris was about to stand trial for the 1990 murder of Dawn's friend Tracey Harris. Dale County Assistant District Attorney Jordan Davis told Beasley she needed her to testify at the trial. Beasley, speaking publicly for the first time, says the request made her feel her own life was over, because of a secret she had kept for 30 years. Correspondent Maureen Maher reports in
Dawn Beasley knew Carl Harris. He was Tracey's ex-husband and the father of Tracey's young daughter. Although they were divorced, Tracey, 22, and Carl, 25, had continued living together in Ozark, Alabama. Just months before Tracey's murder in 1990, Beasley and her fiancé briefly stayed with the Harris family in their home. Beasley got a firsthand glimpse into Tracey's family life. But she says what she witnessed shocked and disturbed her. Beasley says Carl had a violent temper.
"He was incredibly abusive to [Tracey]. … One time we were sitting at the table and … she told Carl, 'Hey, listen, I'm going to need some money for the water bill …' And he flew into a rage. That ended up in a physical fight, violence. He's got her bent over backwards with his hands around her throat. You know, she would threaten to leave him, and he would get violent. ... He threatened to kill her in front of me."
Maureen Maher asked Beasley, "Did she talk to you about it at all?"
"Yes," Beasley replied. "... She just wanted to be a family. … she felt like if she could just get through the rough stuff, you know, that it would be OK."
Tracey never filed police reports about the alleged abuse.
Beasley said she and her fiancé moved out because of the constant fighting. Dawn was just 20 years old, pregnant and excited about starting her own family.
Tracey vanished from her home on March 7, 1990. Her body was found in the nearby Choctawhatchee River a week later. The autopsy revealed Tracey drowned, but noted she had marks on her neck likely consistent with strangulation. Her death was ruled a homicide.
"Tracey was a kind and loving person who did not deserve what happened to her," Beasley said.
Beasley, like others in town who believed Carl was abusive to Tracey, said she was not surprised when Carl became a suspect. In 1990, she gave Ozark Police a statement, telling them about the domestic violence incidents she says she witnessed between Carl and Tracey.
Authorities say more than a dozen other witnesses came forward, saying that Carl had abused Tracey. They also discovered Carl had a girlfriend. Investigators believed Carl was the last person to see Tracey alive.
Carl denies killing her.
"Everybody thought I killed her," Carl Harris told Maher. "Everywhere I turn, you know, you hear them whispering in the background, 'there's the man that killed Tracey.'"
Despite the suspicion, there was not sufficient evidence, and Carl was not charged at the time. Tracey's murder went cold. Then in 2015, the Ozark Police cold case unit picked up the case. After an investigation, Carl Harris was arrested for the murder of Tracey Harris on September 13, 2016.
Maher asked Dale County District Attorney Kirke Adams: "What's different in 2016 that wasn't there or obvious in 1990?"
"I think the major thing was getting these witnesses together, which is what we did for the grand jury presentation," Adams replied. "And once you heard those people … it was very clear that Carl was violent. He had threatened Tracey. He had said … 'one of these days, I'm going to kill you.' Those things just add up."
Carl Harris insists he never abused Tracey.
"So, all those people were lying?" Maher asked.
"Yes, ma'am," Carl said. "…I never put my hands on Tracey … never. ... I loved Tracey. She was the love of my life."
To prepare for trial, Ozark Police re-interviewed many of the people who had originally given statements. However, one person they hadn't re-interviewed was Dawn Beasley, who had moved away from Ozark. Beasley says she was not aware that Carl had been arrested for Tracey's murder.
In January 2020, as prosecutors Adams and Davis continued preparing their case against Carl Harris and were sorting through witness statements, Beasley's original statement caught their attention.
"She had witnessed domestic violence while living in their home," Davis said. "She had witnessed it in the same manner as how Tracey was actually killed."
After several attempts to track Beasley down, Davis was finally successful.
Beasley said when she got that phone call, she panicked. "And I hear her say, 'you're the only one who saw him with his hands around her throat.'"
Beasley did not want to testify and made excuses to the prosecutor. "I said, no, I can't possibly do that. My job is very stressful."
"[Dawn] explained to me …that it was very hard for her to get away and that it would just put a major, major strain on her to come up here to testify," Davis said. "[She] said that she was going to decline our invitation, that she wouldn't be coming, that she couldn't help us."
District Attorney Adams said, "I think it was the word 'decline' that upset Jordan tremendously, because now I have on the phone a very upset assistant district attorney who is determined that she's going to get Dawn to come to court."
"I never responded to her declining my invitation," Davis said. "I simply got a subpoena ready."
An investigator told Davis that Beasley was upset when the subpoena was served.
"I was very unhappy," Beasley said. "I said, 'you're ruining my life and you don't understand why you guys don't want me to testify.'"
But the next morning, the assistant district attorney was dropping off her child at school when Beasley called back. What she said next took Davis completely by surprise.
"I have given you two completely honest reasons why I don't want to testify, but they are not the most important reason. The most important reason I can't testify is because you have an innocent man on trial," Beasley said she told Davis. "... The man that did commit the crime … confessed it to me the night he did it."
At first, the prosecutor was skeptical. "I thought, wow… she's coming up with a crazy story as to why she can't get here," Davis said. "But then the more she talked and the details she knew, I immediately thought, 'oh, my goodness, she knows more than I thought she did ...'"
Davis' boss, Kirke Adams, said she immediately phoned him, saying, "'I hope you're sitting down.' … And she said, 'Carl Harris did not kill Tracey.'"
Carl Harris' murder trial, just three days away, was put on hold. Dawn Beasley's revelation led to a new whirlwind investigation to confirm who killed Tracey Harris. And on the day Carl Harris' trial was to start, the DA instead held a press conference announcing charges against Carl were dropped and that another man was arrested for murdering Tracey Harris.
Find out who the prosecutors learned was responsible for Tracey Harris's murder in an all-new episode of 48 Hours. Correspondent Maureen Maher investigates in