Harrison Graham


Harrison Graham

A.K.A.: "Marty"

Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Mentally retarded drug abuser - Necrophilia
Number of victims: 7
Date of murders: 1986 - 1987
Date of arrest: August 17, 1987 (surrenders)
Date of birth: October 9, 1958
Victims profile: Female addicts
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Status: Sentenced to life imprisonment, followed by six electrocutions (to prevent parole) on May 1988. Deemed incompetent to be executed on December 20, 2003

Harrison Graham (1986-1987) was a 28-year old mentally retarded drug abuser who lived in a slum district of Philadelphia and rented a third floor apartment.

He was evicted for smells coming from his apartment, but before he left he nailed up the bedroom door claiming there was some property in there he was coming back for. When he never came back, authorities broke down the door and found 7 bodies, all in various stages of decomposition. Only 2 bodies could be identified, and one was his former girlfriend.

He turned himself in to police, and admitted strangling all the women while having sex with them during and after their deaths. He was sentenced to life for 7 counts of murder and 7 counts of abusing a corpse.

Graham, Harrison

A mentally-retarded drug abuser, Harrison Graham was well-known in his Philadelphia ghetto neighborhood. Sometimes, he would amuse the local children with his "Cookie Monster" puppet; other times they found him digging graves -- for dogs, he said -- in nearby vacant lots. Apparently, no one suspected that his simple mind might hide a darker urge, compelling him toward homicide.

In early August 1987, Graham quarreled with his landlord's nephew, afterward evacuating his apartment, nailing the door shut out of spite. Police were summoned on the afternoon of August 9, when neighbors filed complaints of a pervasive stench that emanated from the room. Inside, patrolmen found two strangled women's bodies, three more skeletons beneath a mound of garbage on the floor, another tied up in the closet. Graham had been living in the squalid hole since 1983, and he had not been idle. Officers began to search the neighborhood for Graham, house by house, while newsmen noted that the suspect's dwelling stood a mere three miles from Gary Heidnik's "house of horrors," where another ghoulish scene had been discovered five months earlier.

The roof of Graham's building yielded skeletal remains of victim number seven, but initial warrants simply charged the missing suspect with abuse of corpses. Murder was not proven until August 11, when a medical examiner reported that the freshest victims had been strangled some time in the past ten days.

On August 14, another skull and partial skeleton were excavated from the dirt floor of a row house three doors down from Graham's building. He surrendered two days later and confessed to seven murders since the winter months of 1986. According to his statement, Graham picked up female addicts on the street, enticing them with offers of a fix, and brought them home where they were murdered after sex.

On August 26, psychiatrists declared that he was competent for trial.

In April 1988, dispensing with his right to trial by jury, Graham laid his case before a solitary judge. Convicted on seven counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of abusing a corpse, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, followed by six electrocutions. The unusual sentence -- hailed by Graham's lawyer as "compassionate and brilliant" -- theoretically assures that he will never be paroled.

Harrison Graham Story

During the 1980s, the city of Pennsylvania became home to three notorious serial killers: Gary Heidnik, aka the “Frankford Slasher” who murdered seven people and held several more women in a torture chamber he retrofitted out of his North Marshall Street home’s basement. Then a man named Leonard Christopher was arrested after an escaped victim turned eye-witness linked the killer to at least seven murders of females in the Frankford-area. Finally, during the summer of 1987, police responded to complaints of residents living at a decrepit apartment complex in north Philadelphia. Behind a door, nailed shut by its renter, women’s decomposing bodies were found on that sweltering day.

There is no such thing as one murder more heinous than the next; whenever life is stolen, degrees of less tolerable are impossible to measure. We consider a murder, shake our heads in disbelief, and wonder ‘how’ and ‘why’? What sorts of monsters are capable of stealing life? Who does this? Is it evil, a bondage to darkness that takes over and possesses creates literal bogeymen? Perhaps; certainly, it is worthy of examination. Sometimes, we can actually look at a murderer, and see the missing links in his character, and wonder to ourselves how someone, somewhere along the way did not point a finger and say, ‘hey, someone needs to intervene here…we’ve got some wrong behavior going on over here…’

When researchers look back at infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, a background of abuse to animals and other pathological cruelty is uncovered. Charles Manson spent most of his youth in reformatory. Oppositely, Ted Bundy, who murdered at least two dozen women, had no criminal background. He was able to elude suspicion all of his life, all the while harboring obsessive sexual fantasy. Harrison Graham could not be categorized into any of these categories. He was not cruel to animals, he was not in and out of youth camps, nor did he charm people with his courtesy and flirtations. Never the less, he was a red flag waving high in the street, begging for supervision, crisis intervention and intervention in the most major way.

It was so humid on Sunday, August 9, 1987 it felt like if you tried to cut the air with a knife, you’d fail. It would have been unimaginable, living in the urban squalor near Cecil B. Moore Avenue that provided tenement living to the poor and desperate. Still, it was better than no home at all, which was becoming more of a reality as the city continued to board up and close shop on many of the buildings that had been overcome by dope dealers and pimps and the resulting endless stream of officers flailing through insurmountable drug busts and domestic disputes.

1631 North Street appeared to be abandoned. If one were prone toward dark secrets, such a venue may well serve this purpose. Water sometimes ran, then again sometimes it didn’t. The front entrance to the building consisted of a broken down door and rubble obstructing the opening. The front windows had been shattered providing free entry into the apartments, which would cause for the assumption that no one would live behind such vulnerability – and in such an area. And yet, people did. Addicts and otherwise homeless, the mentally ill and deviant; this was their home. It almost seems reasonable that drugs were paramount – reds and blues, Ritalin and Talwin, uppers and downers – anything to numb the suffering from that unbearable heat, the purgatory of hopelessness, the fear that it could be even worse.

Officer Pete Scallatino was the first to respond to the complaints of foul odors on that afternoon. He recognized the scent of death as he entered the dilapidated structure. Following his instinct and his odiferous senses, he climbed the stairs to the third floor until he reached an apartment which screamed of rot. The front room, which was accessible from the hallway by an opened door, was filled with the materials of stench: food containers, molded newspapers and magazines, dried feces and filthy clothes piled knee-high. On the wall were rough sketches – one particularly disturbing drawing of a naked women accessorized with someone’s verbal denouncements poured over it in what appeared to be dried blood.

The officer walked past the kitchen to a door he assumed led to a room; the smell was thickening around him, and he felt certain the cause was coming from behind this door. The name “Marty” was etched into the door, and below was an open key-hole. He leaned down and peered through, able to see a human figure. He demanded the door be open, but the legs he could see were motionless. Scallatino called for back up. With the help of investigator Charles Johnson, the door was pried open, and the body of a black female lying on a mattress was in full view. The body was bloated and decomposing. Next to the mattresses was a second body, another female, sprawled dead on the floor.

The two men needed more help; it was difficult to assess whether the deaths were drug-related or homicide. As detectives began to show up, a crowd began to gather. The conditions within the building were an obstacle and now a circus show was building. Police taped off the scene, and as authorities filtered through the waste, a third body was discovered beneath all the debris. The victim was skeletal, which meant that whatever had been going on at 1631 North -0000000 had been going on for quite sometime.

The search continued. Mean donning masks braved through syringes and spoons, broken glass, dog feces and human remains and within mere hours uncovered a fourth victim – this body also appearing less than human in its remains, which had been mummified in sheets carefully binding it’s occupier. A search that had begun in the early afternoon was now into the sunset hours. At 5:30 the search party discovered by #5, hidden between two mattresses. This body had not been wrapped or bound, but left to decompose past the point of gender identification. An officer called to the men in the back room. He had found a body in the front closet, littered with garbage and tattered old clothes.

A light rain accompanied the muggy temperatures and the sun had fallen, making the search more uncomfortable and visually less possible. With a body count at six, the search was called off until morning. Crowds of people gathered around the building – beyond the neighbors and locals. The media had caught wind of a potential serial killing spree in urban Philadelphia, and news teams were gathering among the homeless, the pimps and prostitutes, the junkies and the other desperate of the community.

August 10, the search was broadened to the outside of the apartment structure. Officers and crews began to dig; a search atop the building found more body parts, a leg and a foot, dismembered. Morning newspapers displayed the tenant’s picture: A handsome, younger black man appearing in healthy physical condition. His name below the picture read “Harrison Graham.” An APB had sheriffs and officers and every other authority in the area on the lookout.

Harrison was known as “Marty” by his neighbors. He was described as quiet and easygoing. Women tenants were not in fear of him; in fact, he had done handy work for some, and had no history of posing any sort of threat. As is often the case with serial killers, his involvement in the grisly crime scene was shocking – even to his less than upstanding co-habitants. Word on the street, specifically from drug users, provided a different slant. While Harrison Graham appeared to be mild mannered, he was also dealing some of the more popular drugs, as well as participating in the lifestyle. He received three hundred dollars each month in social security, but appeared to be supplementing his life with drug money.

The victims were autopsied, and no signs of physical trauma or violence were found. The first two bodies had decomposed rapidly as a result of the climate; they had in fact only been dead a few days. While the coroner’s were able to assess their gender as female, the other victims’ were less identifiable.

During all this, the Daily News printed a story about the relatives and friends of Cookie Mathis, a victim. They discussed how they'd "known" when they'd first heard reports that Cookie was among the victims. Her husband heard about the shirt found on a body and knew it was his wife. He'd bought it for her.

Anthropologists were brought in to dissect information from tissue and bones. Within a week, the public would serve to be more aid in helping police solve identity mysteries. The media was running stories about the ‘madman on the loose,’ as Harrison was still at large. A husband came forward to inquire about his wife, who had been missing for over two years. The roommate of another victim told authorities that she believed Sandra Garvin had gone to buy drugs from Harrison. She had not returned. Further, debris from the crime scene filled in missing pieces: jewelry, including a heart-shaped necklace, and three earrings were newsworthy. Photos brought in answers from the public when relatives stepped forward to help identify another two victims.

Harrison Graham was still nowhere to be found. August ___, The sought after suspect had four younger siblings and his mother, Lilly, all living in the Philadelphia area. The family put out a public plea for Harrison to come home. He’d been seen at local shelters, even on a city bus, but he’d somehow continued to elude investigators.

Investigators continued to search the condemned building, atop, beneath, and adjacent. Some bones were exhumed from the grounds surrounding the apartment, but after a closer examination by the coroner, these were animal remains, not human.

On August 15, however, another body was found – the search had expanded to surrounding buildings, and in the basement of a complex down the street from Graham’s residence, a similarly preserved (wrapped in a blanket and bound with electrical cord) human being was discovered under a what appeared to be a burn-pile. Upon scrutiny, it appeared only the torso and the skull remained – leading investigators to question if this was an eighth victim, or if this would be the connection to previously found leg bones.

While the search for Harrison Graham intensified, the Medical Examiner was attempting to attach names to bodies. One female had been identified, a mother of five, Mary Jeter Mathis. While the office personnel worked feverishly to piece the puzzle together, Lillian Graham was receiving the phone call that could provide investigators with a plethora of answers: Harrison.

On August 17 the phone rang at Lillian Graham’s Philadelphia residence. It was her eldest son, hungry and tired. He wondered if she might meet with him and bring him something to eat. According to Harrison, his mother was able to talk some sense into him. “Stop running, son. Whatever happened, we can work this out. Just come on home. We love you. Your family loves you.” Harrison waited at a street corner for the police to pick him up.

“At first, I couldn’t say it. God help me, I couldn’t tell them. But the Lord hath helped me. I know how sin is…it overtook me, lest it wasn’t me…”

It was getting late, but the persistent officers continued to press the detained suspect until finally he admitted that he had played a role in the murders of the seven women. He had tried for hours to convince the men that the bodies had been there when he’d moved in to the complex. Reluctantly, he would admit to one killing, than finally relented and told the whole truth – with a twist. It may have been his hands, but it was not his mind. “It was Marty,” he explained.

“My mamma tol’ me to read my Bible; and Hell hath no place for sin…but he done these things…I love my bible ‘an I hath no place for these things…he done these things…” Harrison Graham, 1998 from Harrisburg Penitentiary

When Harrison was a small boy, according to both his own version of his life and more evidentiary, the research of investigators, his familial situation was not always sound. At an early age, he was both the lover to and employee of a male pimp. Troubles at home led him to the streets, where, for the first time, Harrison claims to have felt “deeply loved.” He was introduced to homosexual relationships and prostitution and also to drugs. In his early teens, his mother’s own “spiritual revelation” was imposed upon him; she dragged him from the streets he’d come to know as home, and began to preach the immoralities of his lifestyle – one she’d been utterly uninvolved in for a very long time.

Not even the most seasoned psychologist could explain for certain why Harrison Graham became a serial murderer; however, even a layperson could point to specific incidences in his childhood and adolescence that were surely significant in the “splitting” of his person – that of the loving and rehabilitated Christian son, and oppositely the homosexual addict with an insidious passion for the underbelly of street living. It would only be a matter of time until he would develop a name for his altered state. Once established, all guilt could be carried by one entity, leaving the other “person” to live a life, free of the responsibility of both his perverse sexual needs and drug habits and ultimately, his serial crimes.

It is both tragic and unsurprising that among his victim’s was his former girlfriend, Robin DeShazor. Graham stated in an interview, “I wanted so badly to love her…but I could not stop my need to do the other things…I never liked the sex and it got so much easier when I didn’t have to see her…” To explain, Harrison somehow felt more at ease having sex with his girlfriend once he had strangled her. In a sense, he has said, his secrets were safer with her, dead. “She knew ‘bout Marty, ‘an his desires…I didn’t want her looking at me that way and I seen God being angry through her eyes…” Harrison Graham lured all of his victims, whether he knew them previously or met them on the street, with drugs. Consensual sex led to strangulation, which, Harrison explains, always shocked him in the morning, when he’d awake to find a woman lying next to him, dead.

Harrison confessed to the police that with his first victim, DeShazor, he was so shaken by what he had done, and so afraid as to what to do next, that he simply left her body in his apartment. It was not until he brought a different woman to his apartment that he attempted to conceal her, by hoisting the corpse unto his roof through a bedroom window.

During interrogation, Graham wrote a ten-paged confession; however during his arraignment, the question of mental illness was topic. Joel S. Moldovsky was appointed his public defender, and immediately, the point of whether Graham had been capable of signing his own confession aka death certificate was argued. While detectives claimed that the confession had been procedurally sound, with the suspect’s mother present, Moldovsky was able to successfully point to due process conflict: Harrison, he claimed, was never told he had a right to have an attorney present. In spite of the heated, emotionally charged facts surrounding the murderer’s case, his rights were still to be protected.

On August 27, 1986, a detective read through the gruesome account of findings during a six-hour hearing. Harrison was reportedly agitated, rocking back and forth as the detective read that the defendant had described maggots in his apartment as “fur ball bugs” to a visitor. He “had to stay high all the time to [ignore the birds eating a body outside his window.” Drugged and in a paranoid state to begin with, Harrison was panicked when the police arrived, literally throwing bodies into the back bedroom. Until this point, he had staged the corpses of his most recent murders in the front room. In a chaotic flurry, he hurried and boarded up the door and ran.

This, according to Joel Moldovsky, among other characteristically bizarre behaviors, were paramount in determining his client’s competency. Further, Dr. Robert Stanton, a psychiatrist, evaluated Graham, citing an I.Q. of 63, which is considered to be less than mentally competent. This, coupled with his substance abuse and addictions, resulted in a man who, according to the laws of the state of Philadelphia, was incapable. Harrison was suffering from chemically induced auditory hallucinations, psychosis, black outs and chronic paranoia. More over, a psychologist by the name of Albert Levitt testified that aside from the defendant’s chemical and physiological issues, Harrison was incompetent in fundamental academic skill: reading, writing, math, and telling time.

In a rather shocking turn, with the evidence to the contrary, Judge Edward Mekel still declared Graham competent for trial. He based his opinion in part on the DA’s counselor, Robert Sardoff, who had told reporters that he felt Harrison had been utterly “able” during the initial confession.

Contrary to the prosecution’s stance, Moldovsky was arguing insanity, specifically a multiple personality disorder. During an interview with Philadelphia’s “Daily News,” the attorney commented that Harrison Graham often spoke in a second and third personality. “Marty” was an easy-going handyman. He liked his mother, he was heterosexual and a religious zealot. At times, “Junior” would show himself – this personality was most familiar as the child-like male whose neighbors purportedly remembered hanging on to his Cookie Monster stuffed animal. It was “Frank” who was responsible for the heinous crimes of both murder and necrophilia. It was Frank who could not stand to be with a woman, in brutal contrast with Marty, who hated the sinful nature of homosexuality. Who felt it was a condemnation to eternal death. Frank, however, was streetwise, with a desire for drugs and harder core, homosexual relations including his own prostitution. Again, something he had been introduced to in his own adolescence.

In fact, Harrison was involved in a fight in prison and blamed his part on “Frank” which King summarily dismissed as Harrison Graham’s ability to “fake it.” A psychologist, Dr. Gerald Cooke, offered a statement that he had organic brain damage (although he was not an expert on the subject and this issue had already been dismissed by a neurologist). Cooke also said that Graham suffered from "sexual sadism," which is not a mental illness that makes a person insane or absolves him of guilt, so he seemed to be an ineffective witness on key issues.

Ms. Graham was her son’s greatest ally: She did not believe, she stated, that “Harrison would be capable of such horrible crimes.” She reasoned that he was too simple, and too non-violent. Even had he ever gone off due to the alcohol or drugs he’d been accused of abusing, he would not have had the where with all to plan such crimes, or hide bodies. As adamant as she was, she guided her son away from a jury trial, explaining to him that while he was innocent, she knew that the jury would be prejudice, once the prosecutors revealed their crime scene photos.

Then, just before the judge’s ruling, the prosecution entered a “surprise” witness: “Paula” – a woman who claimed to have lived with Harrison. She accused Harrison of strangling her during sex – causing her to pass out at times. She also said that during the three years that she lived with the man, off and on, he had bragged about strangling Robin Deshazor, and then having sex with her dead body. Paula had been frightened that he would do the same thing to her, if she broke off their relationship. His excuse for strangling the woman to death was simply that she’d tried to leave him. Paula didn’t dare.

According to her testimony, the woman had endured rape, beatings and torture at the hands of Harrison Graham.

What was supposed to be a queue for the state, turned out to be an accomplishment for the defense. First, Robin had been beaten not strangled, leading to the conclusion that the witness had lied about her former boyfriend’s testimony. Further, Harrison had no history of long-term relationships; in fact, he had killed his only so-called girlfriend. It did not fit the pattern of Graham’s murders or “personality” to have maintained a three year relationship with any woman, much less one that would live. If anything, Paula’s statements that Harrison kept her in drug-induced stupors and was often “using” himself only added to the stability of the defense’s claims that the defendant was not in control of his facalities.

On March 8, Harrison Graham told the judge that he was not responsible for the murders, and that “someone else had done [it].” Harrison put his fate in Judge Latrone’s hands, waiving his right to a jury. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse on all counts. His attorney told reporters that he doubted Graham knew that he’d been found guilty, or what the ramifications of that would mean; he then directed his own attention toward keeping Graham from execution. The large, black man listened to his conviction, barely making a wince. Afterward, he told reporters that “everything would work out just fine…” He requested his Cookie Monster be given back to him, now that it was no longer needed as evidence.

Moldovsky was never required to fight the good fight for his client: In May Judge Latrone ruled that while he would sentence the defendant, Harrison Graham, to six death sentences, he would first be remanded to prison to serve out a life term. The single life sentence was for DeShazor's murder. She was the first, so there were no other murders to add aggravating factors. Graham was additionally sentenced by Latrone to serve six consecutive sentences of seven to fourteen years each. Harrison’s mother had not been able to make herself present for the ruling; however, his attorney was greatly relieved, defining the judge’s motion as “Solomonic.” And it was: by allowing Harrison to serve his convictions of death prior to his life sentencing, he had achieved a life sentence without possibility of parole. Latrone had taken into account the mitigating factors of Harrison’s abusive, neglectful childhood. While some scoffed at his compassion, it was never the less true that Harrison had learned to adapt to unthinkable circumstances as a boy, and that in part, to survive, it was acceptable to believe that he had developed altered personalities, a not uncommon characteristic of broken adults which stems from tragic, early childhood conditions.

King also felt that the conviction was in “all interests” and protected everyone involved; the victims, the victims families, and Harrison Graham, from Harrison Graham himself.

Until 1994, Harrison Graham was a prisoner at Harrisburg Penitentiary in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. But then the Supreme Court, after a routine review, deemed his sentence unethical and illegal. The Court ruled that Graham’s life sentence be overturned, and that the death sentence be implemented. He was then scheduled to die on December 7, 1988. Judge Latrone was again in the position of making a decision to let Graham live or die. He stayed the execution. The murderer’s case seemed to spend much of its time in appeals, and in and out of higher courts, until in 2002 the US Supreme Court banned the executions of all mentally retarded criminals. Harrison did not meet the initial requirements of the ban. As stated by a psychiatrist involved in his case, “he tested lower than he functioned, so even if his IQ was below 70, he was not mentally retarded.” But because, according to the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association that an onset of mental illness occurring before the age of eighteen years mandated the same relief from execution, Harrison Graham was permanently off of death row.

Today, Harrison resides in a medium security facility in Pennsylvania. His case manager described him as “mild and non-violent.” He has received a minister’s certificate, and continues to practice his faith – religiously.

It is often said of substance abusers that once the drug is removed, sanity returns. This may be the case for Harrison Graham. And faced with the haunting of childhood demons, and his ability to deal with them alone, perhaps the security of his routine, and his cell walls provides the structure and predictability he never knew. And yet, when I called to interview him, he still told me that he “could only do the interview if I promised to call him Marty…”


MO: Retarded addict; strangled prostitutas and kept the remains in his apartment

DISPOSITION: Convicted on all counts, 1988: life term followed by six death penalties (to prevent parole)

Harrison Graham at the time of his arrest.

Harrison Graham

Harrison Graham

Harrison Graham

Harrison Graham

Harrison Graham

The victims

Cynthia Brooks

Valerie Jamison, 25, mother of two sons.

Mary Jeter Mathis, 36, the mother of five children.

Barbara Mahoney

Robin DeShazor

Sandra Garvin

Skull (left); Frank Bender's sculpture (right).