Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

October 11, 2013

Nursing home parolee who spent over 60 years in prison wants to revisit case

• Harvey Stewart said 'I really don't cry about it' when recalling murder he committed in 1958

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

RUSK —    It's been over six decades since Harvey Stewart admittedly murdered 26-year-old James Laird by shooting him in the heart.

Combined with a robbery, this Jefferson County crime led to his conviction of life in prison in July 1958.

Around 2011, the 85-year-old was released on parole after serving over 60 years in Texas prison — arguably, the longest such sentence on record in the state.

For some time, Stewart has been fixated on the belief that his jury trial was rigged. He said he wants to revisit that case in court so he can prove he was wronged and get it vacated.

But the 85-year-old Texas prison system parolee, now a resident of a Rusk nursing home, is not looking for forgiveness for the murder itself. He says it was basically self-defense.

"What could make me feel better about killing a man?" he said. "I really don't cry about it. … He tried to kill me and I knew what he was up to, so I took the pistol from him and shot him with his own pistol."

Stewart said he disposed of the pistol in question by tossing it into "the river water that runs through Liberty."

"They don't have the pistol," he said. "I'm not going to give them his pistol. The pistol is destroyed."

While he was incarcerated, Stewart said he made at least three attempts to escape prison — one of which involved sawing the bars off a window and crawling out of it.

Painting a narrative picture akin to a 1950s crime novel, Stewart describes Jefferson County at that time as a bloody underworld filled with corrupt police officials and rigged jury trials — one of which he contends was his.

"In plain language, they rigged my jury," he said.

He said two members of the jury that convicted him were planted there by corrupt authorities. And he said one police official threatened him with the electric chair if he didn't offer false testimony in the case against an attorney.

"I don't lie and I don't snitch," he said.

Stewart may not be completely coherent. He has no wife or close family members and has rarely received visitors in his 60 years of incarceration.

But he insists he is of sound mind in his search for a particular kind of personal justice.

His story was relayed to a Jacksonville Daily Progress reporter by a Good Samaritan who often visits residents of the nursing home and has evolved into a sort of confidante of Stewarts. But even she cautioned that some employees of the nursing home consider Stewart delusional in his claims.

Whatever his current state of mind, authorities definitely considered him a violent person when he was younger.

According to old records recently recounted in a Houston Chronicle story, the body of Stewart's victim was found laying face down by the road, wearing cotton gloves. He was gagged with a venetian blind cord, according to the news report.

Records indicate the victim had been spotted with Stewart and another man in various Port Arthur bordellos the night before his demise. In a very dramatic turn of events, authorities discovered a note in the victim's pocket that stated if he was found murdered it would be by Stewart and the accomplice.

Stewart and the other two were said to be part of a crew that frequented a local tavern.

And Stewart's accomplice was a former area mayor who Stewart believes was illegally placed on the jury of his murder trial to convict him.

When all was said and done — and after serving nearly ten years on an unrelated armed robbery charge — Stewart was sentenced to the life sentence.

As he served that sentence , Stewart he contacted various media outlets such as the Chronicle, claiming he was the whistleblower who tipped off the investigation that ultimately rid Jefferson County of its rampant vice.

He makes no bones about the fact he was a career criminal. He states proudly that he was a thief. In an interview with the Associated press, Stewart spoke fondly of robbing bordellos in Southeast Texas.

But now he wants justice.

His parole was approved in April, with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles considering his recent history of good behavior, his age and declining health.

But he isn't quite sure how. The last lawyer he had was 40 years ago.

"I've written up a habeas corpus on the typewriter myself. I did good. I told facts."

Despite the fact that his nursing home quarters are "the best I've ever had," he said he wants to get his sentenced reversed so he can leave on his own terms.

"So they can kick me loose — let me go," he said. "I have 64 years — more than anyone has ever served in the state of Texas."