Dagmar Polzin doesn't care what other people think. What matters most to her is saving the life of the man she loves … even if he is a convicted killer on death row she first saw in a Benetton fashion ad in Germany.
Wearing a black dress and still visibly tense after an appearance on television earlier this week, she brushed her blonde-streaked hair to the side and folded her hands in the dressing room she shared with her attorney as she tried to explain her most unusual love affair. So what if she gave up her life in Germany and moved to North Carolina to be near a man she barely knows? Polzin says she loves condemned prisoner Bobby Lee Harris and will do anything to save him from execution.
"I love this man," Polzin told ABCNEWS.com. "If it's the last thing I do, I want to save his life because there's been an injustice."
Polzin was prepared to watch Harris die early this morning, but a judge Wednesday issued a stay of execution. Prosecutors from the state attorney general's office appealed the decision, but the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the stay Thursday and scheduled a Feb. 20 hearing on Harris' case.
Polzin and Harris' lawyers are hoping North Carolina Gov.-elect Mike Easley will spare Harris the death penalty and grant him clemency, sentencing him to life in prison without parole. Easley's office said he will not decide on clemency for Harris until the appeals process is completed.
Harris was convicted for the 1991 stabbing death of his employer at the time, Onslow County fisherman John Redd. Prosecutors say Harris and his co-worker Joe Simpson planned and carried out Redd's slaying during a robbery attempt while they were out on a shrimping boat.
Harris allegedly confessed to stabbing Redd. But his attorneys and Polzin argue that Redd could have survived the attack — hospital officials did not give him the blood transfusions he needed soon enough. They also argue that Harris should not be held fully accountable for his actions because he is borderline retarded with an IQ of 75 and had been drinking heavily in the hours leading up to the slaying.
'Something in His Eyes'
Before Polzin got involved with Harris and his fight against the death penalty, she said she led a "very normal life" as a waitress in a hotel in Hamburg, Germany. Her life changed when she saw Harris' face in a Benetton bus stop ad in late 1999. Harris was one of the prisoners the Italian clothing company featured in anti-death penalty ad campaign that caused Sears, Roebuck & Co. to dump Benetton's line from its stores last February after an outcry from victims rights groups and threats of a boycott.
For Polzin, that first encounter with Harris was not controversial; it was almost love at first sight.
"It was something in his eyes … there was this remorse, sadness," Polzin said. "I was attracted. I'm a woman, and I knew he was the one."
Polzin then wrote to Harris and as the two communicated through letters for months, she grew to love him and became convinced that he did not deserve to die. By last September, she had visited Harris. The two were separated by a glass partition, not allowed to touch, embrace, or kiss. By October, she had moved in with relatives in Raleigh, N.C., to be near Harris and help his case.
Marriage Postponed, Motives Questioned
Polzin says she is allowed to visit Harris once a week for an hour-and-a-half. It's tough, she says, but "we make the best of things."
Though they still have yet to have physical contact with each other, they have planned to marry, but only if Harris is granted clemency.
"You see the media circus. I don't want to do anything that could hurt the case," Polzin said. "This is not a publicity stunt. If granted clemency, then we will marry, but it will not be announced, and no one will know about [it] until afterward."
However, some of Harris' family members believe Polzin is only taking advantage of him and wants to use him — dead or alive — to cash in on potential book, movie or TV deals.
"I think this woman is up to no good," Harris' aunt, Carolyn Parker, of La Moille, Ill., told The Associated Press. "Everybody's buying it hook, line and sinker. Some idiot out there is going to pick this up and make a movie and make her a million dollars — which I think she wants."
Harris' attorney, Mark Edwards, believes she is sincere.
"It should be noted that Dagmar wants people to focus on his [Harris'] case and not the sensational aspect of this German woman falling in love and flying 4,000 miles to be with a death row prisoner," Edwards said. "We think we have a compelling case here. Mr. Harris does not deserve to die for his crimes."
The Arguments for Clemency
In his plea for clemency, Edwards argues that Harris received inadequate counsel because his attorney never presented medical experts who claim the victim could have survived the attack if he had received the proper blood transfusions in a timely fashion from hospital officials. Jurors, he said, also never learned about Harris' low IQ or that his co-defendant had the murder charge against him dropped when he pleaded guilty to accessory murder and robbery charges.
Joe Simpson, Edwards argues, really planned the attack and should have been held equally responsible for the slaying. Instead, he will be eligible for release from prison in 2006.
Edwards says Harris is not looking to be released from prison — he only wants to live. Edwards says a life sentence without parole is more appropriate for Harris because unlike most prisoners, he is truly remorseful for his crimes.
"One of our arguments is that the punishment is disproportionate," Edwards said. "There have been horrendous cases [in North Carolina] where there have been multiple homicides, and the suspects have gotten life in prison without parole. … He [Harris] knows he did something wrong. He doesn't want to get out and doesn't think that he should."
Polzin said she had an interest in death penalty issues before seeing Harris' face in the ad. She conceded that in some cases it is difficult to argue against the death penalty, especially when the victims are children and the slayings are particularly brutal. Still, if Harris is executed, she said she will return to Germany and indicated she will speak out against the death penalty.
"If they kill him, then I will know what they say about this country [and the death penalty] is true," said Polzin, slightly wringing her hands and fighting a lump in her throat. "I'd be very disappointed. This case is one of a lot of cases where there's been an injustice. It cries for clemency."