January 22, 2002
On January 23, representatives of Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group, will gather at the Cook County Circuit Court in Bridgeview to sit in silent witness to the preliminary hearing of Thomas Harrison, who has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his wife, Shirley Harrison.
Disability activists are calling on local media to stop biased reporting of the murder of Shirley Harrison, who died while she lay in bed at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn. Her husband has been charged in the murder.
Not Dead Yet, and other national disability rights groups, have been watching with growing anger and horror as the murders of disabled people of all ages have occurred with what seems like ever-increasing frequency. The news coverage of these tragedies is also a cause for deep concern. Accused murderers of disabled people are often portrayed by reporters as loving, caring individuals acting out of compassion. The Chicago media coverage of the Harrison murder is no exception to this trend.
Specifically,the coverage in the Daily Southtown and the Chicago Sun-Times has been disturbing to read. From the very first story in the Southtown, the speculations of unnamed police officers, neighbors,and a member of the clergy were quoted - all suggesting that Shirley Harrisonwas "suffering" and that her murder could be described as a "mercy killing." The Sun-Times published quotes from unnamed police sources that suggest reporters may have actually suggested that police label this murder a "mercykilling." The Sun-Times recently published a series of articles on elder abuse and should know that it's unwise to rush to label murders of old, ill or disabled women as "mercy killings."
In fact, according to the prosecutors, Shirley Harrison did not ask to die. She did not complain of suffering or pain. Her condition was expected to improve.
Domestic violence is all too common in our culture. If the victim of that kind of violence happens to be old, ill or disabled, that's no reason to assume the violence was an act of mercy. Shirley Harrison's last moments were spent looking at a gun pointed at her by a person she thought she could trust. It's hard to imagine a more horrible way to die.
The murders of old, ill and disabled people need to be treated in the same way as any other murders -labelling these murders as understandable or excusable can encourage such killings - and deprive all other potential victims of the equal protection of the law and, perhaps their lives.
Diane Coleman or Stephen Drake