Application: paul harrington: guilty or not?


Paul Harrington


On October 14, 1999, a former war hero, Vietnam veteran, and Detroit police officer named Paul Harrington borrowed a gun from a neighbor.  The next day he shot his 45-year-old wife, Wanda, and son, Brian, in the head at point-blank range after sending his older son, Paul Jr., off to school. He immediately called 911 and calmly confessed to the crime. Even more shocking, Paul Harrington had done this before. In 1975, he killed his recently estranged wife, Becky, and two daughters, Pamela, 9, and Cassandra, 4, with his service revolver and then turned himself in to police.


During his first trial, Harringtons defense painted the picture of a man haunted by the demons of Vietnam. Under questioning, he admitted that he had been part of a raid in which he accidentally killed a mother and her four children. According to his family, Harrington had returned from the war a disturbed man. Working as a police officer only served to keep the memories of combat and killing fresh in his mind. He had trouble staying balanced and stable, and he turned to alcohol.


Harrington had taken steps to address his demons and had seen a psychiatrist to discuss his fear that he might one day harm his family or himself. The psychiatrist urged him to stay with his family during the holidays, which turned out to be a fatal mistake.


Harrington was medicated and put on watch in a psychiatric institution for 17 months before he went to trial. He was found innocent by reason of insanity, was committed to the state psychiatric hospital, and stayed there for less than two months before being released. He was assessed as not being a danger to himself or others. No one monitored him. He sued the psychiatrist for not hospitalizing him when he needed it, and reached a settlement.


Harrington got married again in 1982 and had two sons. By the 1990s he had become addicted to heroin and was submitted again to psychiatric care. He was diagnosed with severe depression, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder originating from his experiences during the Vietnam War. At the time of the killings, Harrington took four medications—some antipsychotics—to ease his depression, psychosis, and insomnia.


Harrington was hospitalized in 1998 and involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution about two months before he killed his wife and son. Fired from his job as a steelworker in the spring of 1999, his defense attorney argued he was insane and that he faced the haunting memories of his time in Vietnam, the pressures of mounting debt, and had no money to buy his psychiatric drugs.


The surviving son, Paul Jr., would later testify that he overheard his father tell his mother shortly before the shootings that he had fantasized about killing former colleagues at work, feeling that they should not have fired him during his hospitalization. During visits to his psychiatrist, Harrington reported hearing voices, and he told his wife to call police if he threatened anyone. His defense argued that he was afraid that what happened before could happen again. The last contact between Harrington and his psychiatrist was on Oct. 12, 1999, when Harrington called for refills on his medication. Three days later, the killings occurred


Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Ralph Elizondo had physical evidence and a confession via the 911 call to prove Harrington committed the crimes. Elizondo argued that Harrington knew what he was doing because he was able to describe his crime in detail.


Under Michigan law, the defense had to prove not only that Harringtonwas mentally ill but also that he was out of touch with reality when he committed the murders. Defense attorneys tried to build a case of Harringtons insanity by outlining the seriousness of his psychiatric problems and how they were well-documented.


The jury for Harringtons second trial deliberated for about an hour and 15 minutes before rejecting his insanity defense and delivering the alternative verdict of guilty but mentally ill. He was sentenced to life in prison. Despite the outcome, some of the victims family members believed that the mental health system had failed them. They feel that had Harrington been given the help he needed the first time, the tragic deaths could have been avoided.




Ramsland, Katherine. Fathers Who Kill. Retrieved from the Tru TV website:

The Associated Press. (1999, October 24). Man on trial for killing second family. ABC News. Retrieved from:

Harrington, Renee. (2007,December 31.) Wayne County OIDV Cases. [Blog Posting]. Retrievedm from

James, Sheryl. (2000, November 1). Jury Convicts Man of Killing Wife, Son Case Mirrored Deaths of His Previous Family. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from,%20Sone%20Case%20Mirrored.pdf

James, Sheryl. (2000, October 25). Teen Testifies Mom Tried to Leave Before Slaying Boy Says His Father, Accused of Murder, Was Acting Normally. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from

James, Sheryl. (2000, January 25). Tragic Story Has More Fatalities After ’75 Deaths, Man Again Accused of Murder. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from:‘75%20Deaths,.pdf

James, Sheryl. (2000, October 2006). Slaying Suspect’s Psychiatric History is Recounted. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from:




Application: Paul Harrington: Guilty or Not?

Paul Harrington is a famous offender in the American criminal justice system. Harrington was a Vietnam veteran and a Detroit police officer who was haunted by his experiences in the war. He sought psychiatric help and received medication to help him cope, but in 1975, he shot and killed his wife and two daughters. He was found innocent by reason of insanity and spent two months in a state hospital.

After his release, Harrington remarried and had two more children. He continued seeing a psychiatrist and taking medications, but after experiencing financial troubles, he was unable to finance these expenses. In 1999, he borrowed a gun from a neighbor and killed his wife and one of their sons. This time, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

For this Assignment, review the media piece “Paul Harrington.” Examine the Harrington case in more detail and explore possible interventions that might have changed the outcomes of the case.

The Assignment (2–3 pages):

  • Explain points in Paul Harrington’s life where proper intervention by the criminal justice system might have prompted a different outcome.
  • Explain which interventions might have been effective at each point, and explain why.



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