Terry Harris, a cardiologist's son who grew up in Frayser and rose through the ranks as a state prosecutor, appears to be hitting his stride as United States attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.
With a court docket that, this year alone, has included the Logan Young trial, the O.C. Smith trial, a steady flow of gun cases, the sentencing in the Madison day-care case, and a potential terrorism case (see this week's cover story, page 16), the federal building sometimes seems like a cross between ESPN SportsCenter, CSI, Law and Order, and Days of Our Lives, with Harris and his assistants in the director's role.
The Young, Smith, and Madison cases had been stalled until this year. Prosecutors got a conviction in Young's case, a hung jury in the Smith trial (which was tried by a special prosecutor from Little Rock, with Harris testifying as a witness for the government), and a sentence against the Madisons deemed so light that Harris & Co. filed an objection.
"Terry Harris is probably the most aggressive and hands-on U.S. attorney that I have worked with in my 17 years in law enforcement," said Bill Woerner, the FBI agent-in-charge of the Las Vegas field office. Woerner, who formerly worked in Memphis, added, "He is the first U.S. attorney I have known that actually shows up and participates at the command post during takedowns. It's inspiring to people like me."
Harris, who became United States attorney in 2001, also gets good reviews from his colleagues, judges, and opposing lawyers.
"He is the consumate professional," said U.S. district judge Jon McCalla. "The prosecutor is the most powerful position in the land. They can go to a grand jury and get an indictment. No one else can."
John Pierotti, the former Shelby County district attorney general now in private practice as a defense attorney representing, among others, Logan Young, said Harris is "fair, dedicated, and doesn't back off anything."
Harris, 45, attended Skyview Academy, Rhodes College, and the University of Mississippi Law School. After a year in private practice, he joined the Shelby County district attorney general's office in 1987, earning promotions to major violators cases, the gang unit, and chief prosecutor over the criminal courts under current District Attorney Bill Gibbons. In 1998, he ran unsuccessfully for a criminal court judgeship, losing handily to television celebrity Judge Joe Brown. After George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, Harris was recommended for the federal prosecutor's job by Tennessee senators Bill Frist and Fred Thompson.
"There is no political aspect to prosecutorial decisions made by me or anyone in this office," said Harris. "I'm a career prosecutor. I didn't come into this office with a political agenda. And crime doesn't have party labels attached to it."
Harris tries cases himself and leads a staff of 37 attorneys in Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee. Six attorneys work on civil cases, while six more specialize in gun cases, which are the top priority of the office, along with counter-terrorism. Harris promoted Larry Laurenzi to top assistant and has hired several people from Gibbons' staff.
"He is a very hands-on-type boss with an interest in everything that happens here," said Vivian Donelson, a federal prosecutor in Memphis since 1983 and currently head of the criminal division. "He is always accessible and exemplifies the mission of this office."
The soft-spoken prosecutor tends to see the glass as half-full, citing a decline in the number of homicides involving guns in Shelby County from 120 in 2002 to 88 in 2004. Although the property-room scandal stained the reputation of the Memphis Police Department, Harris praised the department's response after the problem was discovered.
"To their credit, the police participated fully in the investigation with no leaks," he said.
Harris gave important testimony in the O.C. Smith case, describing a personally painful process as the investigation shifted to Smith, his professional colleague.
"Our citizens are entitled to honest government," he said in an interview. "Any time our prosecutors can further that goal it is an appropriate use of our resources. But we can't solve all governmental problems." n