Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Other Basketball Great from North Carolina

Charles "Tex" Harrison was a star basketball player at North Carolina Central and became the first player from a predominately black school to be named "All-American." He went on to become a long-time star of the world renowned Harlem Globetrotters. But Harrison found more serious competition than the Washington Generals when Customs Service officials at Houston’s International Airport arrested him in the 1960's.

Harrison was charged with "unlawful possession of narcotics without paid transfer tax" because he was caught carrying less than an ounce of marihuana and hashish. A conviction followed on November 24, 1965, and Harrison was fined two thousand dollars. The sentence was, however, modified on January 21, 1966. Harrison was given five year’s probation and the fine was reduced to only five hundred dollars.

Harrison first applied for a presidential pardon in December of 1985. Amazingly, he began his search for executive clemency without the assistance of a lawyer and right in the middle of the Reagan and Bush "War on Drugs." In that environment, just being a member of the Harlem Globetrotters was probably not going to be enough.

Harrison's application for clemency was supported by Carl Walker, Jr., the man who prosecuted him. Walker, who went on to become a judge, considered Harrison a "fine gentleman" who had "paid his debt to society." Walker also believed that, at the time of the offense, Harrison was "a good kid" who had done something that was really all that "unusual" for "sports people and musicians."

Malcolm Host had employed Harrison at a social service agency in Houston when Harrison left the Globetrotters for a period of time, in the 1980's. Host supported clemency because Harrison "gave freely of his time" to the black and Hispanic communities. He also noted Harrison encouraged troubled teens and adults to seek counseling for substance abuse in the Houston area. The U.S. Pardon Attorney also considered the fifty-eight year old Harrison "particularly deserving" of clemency."

But anyone who thought the pardon would go unnoticed, or without commentary, was probably asking too much, even if it was twenty-six years after-the-fact. First, President Bush had granted a mere ten pardons in his first twenty-five months as president. Suddenly, on a single day in March of 1991, seventeen pardons were granted (including Harrison's). Tom Watson of the Legal Times noted Harrison's pardon gave rise to classic "nagging questions" like "Why him?" and "Why now?"

Second, Harrison was the first person Bush had pardoned for a drug-related offense. Watson noted that was "ironic" since the administration was pushing "to enact tougher penalties on drug offenders and limit flexibility in their punishment." However, White House spokesman Stephen Hart summarily dismissed such observations as "baloney."

Third, Harrison was a long-time star, public relations officer and - at the time of the pardon - a coach for the world famous Harlem Globetrotters. He is described by the Globetrotter's official web site as one of that organization's "most esteemed" members, having "had tea with Queen Elizabeth, caviar with Nikita Khrushchev, and an audience with three Popes."

Finally, Harrison, nicknamed "Tex," was from the President's home state, Texas. At the time of the pardon, Harrison said did not know the President personally, but he had met his oldest son, George W. (also a resident of Houston). The meeting was described as "many years" earlier.

Representative Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania) quipped, "I don't know how you can champion yourself in the debate on in drug use when you are pardoning drug dealers." H. Scott Wallace, legislative director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told the Legal Times that the administration's policies on drugs, Bush's sparing use of clemency, and the Harrison pardon seemed to say that post-conviction reform was "never" enough for Bush to consider "lenient treatment" unless "a person is from Houston." Then, and perhaps only then, rehabilitation could be considered "significant."

"Tex" Harrison told the Legal Times he was "quite elated" over Bush's decision. In his view, given all of the things he had done throughout his life, he deserved the pardon.

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