The Death of Vinson P. Harris

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

From the spring of 1986 to the summer of 1987, reporter Sally Jacobs probed the curious circumstances surrounding the death of a prisoner en route to a federal prison. She located prisoners who would talk about what happened on that fateful bus ride; she filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the US. Bureau of Prisons; and, with support from News & Observer editorials, she pursued the lackluster federal investigation which dragged on for nine months before a grand jury indicted anyone with a crime. What follows are excerpts from several of her stories. 


March 12, 1986 

Last week Vincent P. Harris was resigned to his future. Although he faced a 20-year federal prison sentence for bank robbery, he hoped he would only have to serve half that time. But Harris, 31, a veteran of state prisons, never reached the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., where he was ordered to serve his sentence. Seven hours after boarding a federal prison bus in Charlotte, he was pronounced dead at the Durham County General Hospital. 

What happened during those seven hours is unclear, much of it shrouded in the secrecy of investigations being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the FBI. But many state officials have their own ideas. 

Some officials say they have been told that Harris died shortly after a tape or Ace bandage was tied around his mouth, possibly after a disturbance on the bus. A state assistant chief medical examiner, who performed the autopsy, tentatively has concluded that Harris died of asphyxiation. Other state officials say they do not believe excessive or inappropriate force caused the death. 

Harris' relatives, who live in Charlotte, have their own views. "I think he was suffocated," said Virginia Crawford, one of Harris' two sisters. "I think he was killed. He was shackled and handcuffed and he couldn't defend himself." 

Federal officials, in whose custody Harris had been placed in the Mecklenburg County jail, will say only that Harris died at 5:27 p.m. They declined to say how or where he died. 

The U.S. Marshal for the Charlotte area said his deputies had recorded that Harris was calm and uncomplaining on March 4. About 10 a.m. the deputies placed Harris, along with five other prisoners, on the bus in the custody of Bureau of Prison officials. 

"Harris was in good condition," said Max E. Wilson, the U.S. Marshal for the Western District. "I wasn't there. I have no way of knowing what happened." 

Harris was transported from Butner to Durham County General Hospital by the Butner Rescue Squad, hospital officials said. He arrived at the hospital at 5:08 p.m., "on basic life support systems," said Bernard R. Kingsley, the hospital's director of marketing. "He came to us in critical condition, but I would say it was irreversible at that point." 

A hospital official who asked not to be named said Harris had been admitted under a pseudonym, which law enforcement officials occasionally do to escape media attention. Prison officials, however, did not provide hospital staff with Harris' real name as they usually do in such cases, the officials said. 

Harris was declared dead 20 minutes after arrival. 

The FBI and Bureau of Prisons are conducting their own investigations. The results will be given to U.S. Attorney Samuel T. Currin of Raleigh. 

"All federal officials are mystified about why this inmate died," Currin said. "It is a mystery to me, it is a mystery to the people at Butner as to why he died." 


March 26,1986 

Dr. William Oliver has tentatively ruled that the manner of Vincent P. Harris' death was homicide. "What that means is he died as a result of an act by another person," Oliver said. "And that means that the person meant to take the action he took. He may not have meant to kill the person, but he meant to do what he did." 

Officials and others involved in the case have speculated that Harris may have died when guards wrapped an Ace bandage around his mouth after a disturbance. Some sources said that federal officials told them Harris was shouting on the bus. 

Oliver said a six-inch wide Ace bandage was wrapped around Harris' mouth and once over his head. Duct tape, he said, was placed on top of the bandage to hold it in place. 

Samuel T. Currin, U.S. attorney who is coordinating investigations being performed by the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons, declined to comment on Oliver's findings. 

"You can certainly draw all kinds of conclusions from a statement like that, but I would not want to draw a conclusion at this time," Currin said. "It's a very sensitive matter, and I want to wait until all the facts are before me. 


April 27, 1986 

It started when a federal prison officer accused inmate Vincent P. Harris of hitting him on the head with his shoe during a strip-search in Charlotte, N.C. 

It continued throughout a lengthy prison bus journey as the officer repeatedly ordered Harris to ask permission to go to the bathroom, according to two inmates who were on the bus. With help from other guards, the officer chained Harris to the seat and, finally, in a moment of pique, wrapped his face in an Ace bandage and secured it with duct tape, the two inmates said. 

And it culminated as Harris — handcuffed, shackled at the feet and chained to the bus seat — raised his bound hands urgently, convulsed three times and slumped to the left side of the seat. A dozen prison officials looked on, some of them laughing among themselves, as Harris gradually asphyxiated in Butner, N.C., according to the two inmates. "It was like [the officer] was demonstrating to other staff members that this is how to deal with an unruly individual on the bus," said Morris W. Kendall, one of 13 inmates on the bus. 

Kendall and fellow inmate George E. Harp gave their accounts of Harris' death March 4 in separate interviews with The News and Observer last week at the Federal Correctional Institution in Lewisburg, Pa. Kendall, 34, of Wadesboro, N.C., and Harp, 51, of Vidalia, Ga., concurred on most details of the incident. 

They say Lt. Gerry G. Dale, with frequent help from one of the other four officers on the bus, taped Harris' face after orchestrating the harassment that led up to his death. They say they gave their account to several federal officials weeks ago. 

U.S. Attorney Samuel T. Currin of Raleigh, who will decide with the U.S. Department of Justice whether to seek indictments in the case, also declined to respond. Although Currin said Thursday a decision might be several more weeks in coming, he said he did not think the investigation was dragging. 

"Frankly, I think the investigation has proceeded at a rather fast pace," he said. "Especially when you consider all the implications that are involved." 

Harris' death trip began in the holding tank at the U.S. Marshal's office in Charlotte. There, a half-dozen inmates waited for the bus from Talladega to take them north to various prisons. 

One by one the inmates were taken out of the cell, stripped and searched, their feet shackled, and their hands cuffed and tied to a chain around their waists. 

After being searched, Harris, a large black man, told Harp, "That lieutenant [Dale] accused me of hitting him in the head with a shoe, and he said if I did it again I'd be in bad trouble,"' Harp said in the interview. "He was amazed . . . he said, 'I didn't hit him with a shoe.' And I'm sure he didn't because I've been in prison long enough [to know that] if you hit a guy with a shoe, it's more than that. They don't tell you you're going to be in trouble." 

Once on the bus, most inmates selected their seats. But Dale made Harris sit directly behind the driver. Harris got up and headed for the toilet soon after the bus left Charlotte. Dale ordered him back to his seat. 

Harris stopped and said he had a kidney problem, had recently had an operation and had to go to the bathroom every hour. Dale, his voice rising, told Harris he could not go to the bathroom without permission and again ordered him back to his seat. 

After an increasingly heated exchange, "Dale yells again, 'I told you to get in that seat,"' Harp said. "So Harris looked at me and shrugged like, 'What can I do?' Harris just gave up and sat down." Dale ordered the bus to stop on the side of the road at a place Kendall thought was near Greensboro. Harp recalled that after Harris asked for permission, Dale grabbed the chain around his waist and escorted him to the toilet with another officer. 

When Harris was unable to urinate after a few minutes, they told Harris he was "faking it," according to Kendall, and ordered him back to his seat. 

As the other inmates looked on, Dale began to chain Harris to his seat. As one officer, the only black officer of the four, held Harris' shoulders, Dale and another officer — one that both inmates described as red-haired and plump — slipped the chain under Harris' arms, around the seat back and secured it with a padlock, the two inmates said. 

Harris became angry while being chained to his seat, Harp and Kendall said. "He told Dale if he wasn't handcuffed . . . that it would be a different story," Kendall said. "I guess he meant he would defend himself, that he wouldn't let him treat him in a manner such as that." 

After the chaining, Harp said, Dale shook his finger at Harris and said, '"One word, you understand me? One word and I am going to tape your mouth.' And he shut the door and cranked up the bus, and we proceeded to Butner." 

After unloading five inmates at Butner, as scheduled, Dale stood talking with a handful of Butner employees, occasionally glancing into the bus at Harris. Kendall said Dale then ordered all the inmates except Harris to move to the rear right side of the bus. 

For Harris, there was another trip to the toilet, this time in the company of all four officers on the bus and under the gaze of several Butner officials. The bus officers stood at the door of the toilet and soon told Harris he was faking, according to Kendall. 

After Harris was again chained to his seat, Dale began tearing large strips from a roll of duct tape before Harris' face. Then, with the help of the redhaired officer, he began wrapping an Ace bandage around Harris' head — several times around the head length-wise, several times around the neck, over the chin, and gradually over the mouth and eyes — Harp and Kendall said. 

"He wrapped his whole face up," Harris said, "everything but his nose, a little place for his nose. It was just like a mummy." 

Then Dale started wrapping Harris' head with the duct tape, the inmates recounted. 

"He's making a big production for the people outside, and he's really performing now," Harp said. "It was his show. For the guys outside, up until they saw they had killed a guy, it was a lot of fun. Everybody outside was smiling and talking with each other. It was kind of a festive atmosphere." 

The crowd, now about 10 prison officials, sobered abruptly, however, as Harris began jerking his body and moving his head in vigorous upward motions. Other inmates began yelling at the officers to free Harris, although none of the inmates or the officers made a move to aid the straining body, Harp and Kendall said. 

"I said a few words," Kendall said, "but I really wasn't trying to be next, you know." 

"Harris made three jerking motions, I mean convulsive jerking motions with his body and his head at the same time, approximately three times, and then he went into a slump and his head kind of lost the stiffness to it. It just kind of collapsed. . . ."

The tape was removed from Harris' face, his body taken off the bus and put on the pavement. The chains, shackles and handcuffs were hurriedly removed. Medical personnel tried to revive him with emergency measures — pumping his chest, applying electric paddles to his body and injecting a hypodermic needle into his chest, Harp said. 

Several minutes after he was taken off the bus, Harris was taken to the hospital by the local emergency medical team. 

At 5:27 p.m. he was pronounced dead at the Durham County General Hospital. 

The FBI and the Bureau of Prisons, which are investigating the incident, say their reports should be finished in several weeks. 

Those reports will be given to the U.S. Department of Justice, which will assume responsibility for the case with Currin, the U.S. attorney in Raleigh. 

The Bureau of Prisons is a division of the United States Department of Justice. 


May 31, 1986 

U.S. Rep. William W. Cobey Jr. has asked federal officials to explain why they are taking so long to complete their investigation into the March 4 death of federal inmate Vinson P. Harris. 

Cobey, a freshman Republican from Chapel Hill, has sent a letter to federal agencies investigating the matter even though his 4th Congressional District does not include Butner, where Harris died of asphyxiation. 

"It does appear it has taken quite a bit of time to look into the facts of the case," Steven B. Long, Cobey's press secretary, said Friday. He wanted to give the agencies involved the opportunity to give their view of the investigation." 


July 29, 1986 

The mother of a federal inmate who suffocated on a prison bus in Butner has given the U.S. Justice Department permission to exhume her son's body, apparently to reconstruct the position of the tape and bandage that asphyxiated him. 

State chief medical examiner Dr. Page Hudson said Monday that federal officials contacted him last month to discuss the possibility of exhuming Vinson P. Harris' body, which is buried in a Charlotte cemetery. Hudson, whose office performed an autopsy on Harris, said officials asked him to explain some of the autopsy's findings and the logistics of digging up the body. 

Federal officials, who have remained virtually silent throughout the nearly five-month investigation of the case, declined to comment Monday on a possible exhumation. 

The case "is under very active consideration," said John V. Wilson, assistant director of public affairs for the Justice Department "We will not discuss details of the investigation." 

Asked if "very active consideration" signified closer scrutiny than "under investigation," which is how officials have described the case in the past, Wilson said that it did. 


AUGUST 26, 1986 

As a federal grand jury assembles today in Raleigh to consider the case of a prison inmate who suffocated on a federal prison bus in Butner in March, two additional inmates who were on the bus have come forward with accounts of the incident. 

The inmates, both serving time at a federal prison in Petersburg, Va., said Monday that Vinson P. Harris was handcuffed and chained to his seat when a prison guard wrapped his face with an elastic bandage and duct tape. They said Harris, 31, gasped briefly and gestured in a pleading motion before his head fell to the side. 

The inmates, who gave their accounts in separate telephone interviews, said it was bus supervisor Lt. Gerry D. Dale who wrapped Harris' head with help from another officer. 

Harris "didn't have a chance," inmate Ronald Dean said. "It was the worst thing I've seen in my life." 


December 19, 1986 

A federal grand jury in Raleigh indicted an Alabama prison guard Thursday on two counts in connection with the suffocation death of prison inmate Vinson P. Harris. 

Lt. Gerry D. Dale, a federal prison officer since 1980, was charged with violating Harris' constitutional rights resulting in his death, and with assault resulting in serious bodily injury. He could face a maximum sentence of life in prison. 

The indictment accuses Dale of "applying an elastic bandage and duct tape over substantially all of [Harris]' head and face, . . . resulting in the death of Vinson Preston Harris." Harris, a convicted bank robber from Charlotte, was on a prison bus in Butner when the incident occurred March 4. 

Dale, who lives in Oxford, Ala., and works at the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., could not be reached for comment. 

Harris' relatives in Charlotte said they were pleased with the grand jury's actions. "I feel good about what they did and it makes me happy, but it doesn't bring him back," said Annie M. Harris. "That was my son and nobody can understand unless they have been through it." 


March 26, 1987 

An Alabama prison guard charged in the suffocating death of a federal inmate pleaded guilty Wednesday to assaulting the inmate after prosecutors agreed to drop a more serious charge that carried a life sentence. 

The guard, Gerry A. Dale, of Oxford, Ala., faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. He was released and is expected to be sentenced within several weeks. 

U.S. Attorney Samuel T. Currin of Raleigh, whose office investigated the incident, said he had agreed to drop the more serious charge in exchange for the guilty plea because he felt it was "in the best interest of justice." 


June 16, 1987 

A former Alabama prison guard who suffocated a federal inmate last year was sentenced to nine years in prison Monday. 

The sentence, one year less than the maximum he could have received, was handed down in federal court after a daylong hearing in which many details of the inmate's death were described for the first time in public by federal investigators. 

Gerry A. Dale, a former guard at the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., stood briefly in New Bern's federal courtroom and said he was largely a product of the prison in which he had worked. But he also said he understood that what he did was wrong. 

"I only wish I could turn back the hands of time," Dale said, his hands clasped behind his back as he stood before U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle. "But I know that is impossible. I am sincerely sorry." 

Federal prosecutor Mark B. Harmon declined to say when Dale might be eligible for parole. Some federal officials, however, predicted Dale would serve about three years before being paroled.