A Daughter’s Revenge

Brigitte Harris at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in September 2010.Photo: Flemming Ove Bech

On an early-summer afternoon in 2007, Brigitte Harris took a two-hour subway-and-ferry ride from her apartment in Queens to her sister Carleen’s apartment in Staten Island. When she arrived, she walked past the living room and into the kitchen, where her sister tried to calm her down. Talk to him, Carleen told her. Maybe he’ll apologize.

Harris gathered herself together, then walked out of the kitchen and, for the first time in five years, took a look at her father. Eric Goodridge was 55 now—older and frailer, though still robust at more than 200 pounds. He was in pain, suffering from a kidney stone. The man standing in front of her was different from the one she’d envisioned for so long. This man was talking to her like she was 26, not 6. This man was handing her a business card with his phone number. This man was saying, “We need to talk.”

Then he asked her to go out and get him something to drink. She walked to a nearby store, bought a V8 Splash, and came back to the house. And when she returned, she saw something that stopped her cold: her 8-year-old niece, Edina, Carleen’s daughter, laughing and playing in Eric Goodridge’s lap.

Harris grabbed her bookbag and went back to the ferry. She knew she needed to see her father again, but alone. A few days later, he called. And as the two of them set up another meeting, he let her know that he intended to take Edina and another niece of Harris’s, 8-year-old Monique, back with him to Africa.

This was too much. Harris came to Carleen in anguish. The two women argued. Carleen of all people, Harris thought, should understand the danger of sending two little girls away with Eric Goodridge.

“How do you do it?” Harris asked her sister. “How do you go on?”

“You just do it,” Carleen said. “You move on.”

On Wednesday, July 25—three days before she would see her father again—Harris flicked on a camcorder, aimed it at herself, and started talking.

Okay, so, testing right now. My name is Brigitte Harris, and this is the story of my life. Well, not the whole thing, obviously. It’ll take way to long. Just the summary reasons—why I’m doing what I’m about to do, why I feel I have to do it, why it must be done, why I’ve waited this long to do it. And so, you can judge me. But before you do, get the whole story. That’s all I ask.

Three years have passed. It’s a few days before Thanksgiving, and Brigitte Harris is sitting at a conference table at the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women in Westchester. Two guards are sitting within five feet of her. One of them, while waiting for her to be brought in, told me privately that she’d like to shake her hand.

There’s a calm about Harris as she talks. She is remembering that day in Staten Island when she saw Edina on her father’s lap. “It took me right back to myself,” she says. “Playing and laughing and giggling. It seems innocent, but I know what he’s thinking.”

Brigitte Harris was born on June 6, 1981, in the back seat of a cab outside a Staten Island hospital—an emergency delivery to a mother, Lucy-Anna Harris, who would leave for Liberia two years later, abandoning Brigitte and three other children to the foster-care system. By 1984, their father had taken them in. In one of her earliest childhood memories, her father orders her to undress and lie naked on a bed in a guest room. She remembers him getting on top of her and trying to have sex with her. She remembers the phone ringing and pleading with her father to go answer the phone—and him telling her “Don’t worry about it.” She remembers him getting off her in time. She remembers holding her doll. She remembers being in pain. She was 3 years old.

Her siblings have all since confirmed everything Harris says her father did to her, and yet her father also was the closest thing to a constant in her childhood. Eric Goodridge had once been a familiar face in the Staten Island African-expat community. He had left Liberia and started several businesses—records, imports and exports, a taxi service. Harris’s mother remembers him as a philanderer with a prevailing interest in young girls. Brigitte was about 4 when her father first forced her to perform oral sex on him. “He sat on the bed and he took his pants off, pulled his penis out, and told me to ‘suck on it,’ ” she remembered later, “and I guess I was doing it wrong, so he said, ‘Suck on it like a bottle.’ And I guess I still wasn’t doing it the right way because he laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll teach you.’ ”

At 12, Harris was sent to Liberia to live with her mother, and what she hoped would be a tearful reunion turned violent. Lucy-Anna beat her with a rattan so hard that it left permanent marks. Life with her mother became so unbearable that she actually went to live with her father again. “When [Lucy-Anna] told him I couldn’t stay with him because of [the abuse] I denied it ever happened,” Harris recalled later in a journal. “I convinced myself it never happened.” Good­ridge soon left her with a girlfriend who would beat a naked Harris with a rattan, then pour a solution of ground hot peppers into the wounds. In 1996, during a flare-up in the country’s ongoing civil war, Harris took advantage of a free airlift out of Liberia to flee her father’s girlfriend. Her father took her in again in New York. She was 15, fully into puberty, and Goodridge took full notice. He forced her to be still as he performed oral sex on her, then to watch porn with him. “In Africa, fathers sleep with their daughters to show that they love them,” he told her.

A half-sister and aunt promised to help, but in 1997, Goodridge took Harris back with him to Liberia, where he was living with two women—Harris later described them as distant cousins—with whom he often had sex. On New Year’s Eve 1997, her sister Lovette was asleep when her father attempted a sexual attack on Harris for the last time. She fell asleep, only to awake in the middle of the night as he was performing oral sex on her. “But before I fully woke up,” she later recalled, “I had experienced some sort of pleasure. I didn’t know what was going on. And then I realized it was him.” For the first time, she physically fought him off. She was crying, and eventually he gave up.

She was 17 when she finally was able to get out and stay with her mother, also in Liberia. Goodridge let her leave, tossing her passport at her dejectedly and letting her know he disapproved of her abandoning her friends, including Lovette. She stayed with her mother until her 18th birthday, when she could qualify for a repatriation loan. She told Lovette she would be back for her, then headed back to America. “I told her I was going to get her out of there,” Harris says. A decade later, the fact that she wasn’t able to keep that promise still weighs on her.

Harris tried to build a new life for herself in fits and starts. She stayed with family between stints at women’s shelters. She finished high school and went to college for a year, then got work as a $17-an-hour security guard in a freight section of Kennedy Airport. She made some friends on MySpace and started dressing goth, with spiked collars and multicolored hair extensions. Her father made a brief appearance in 2002; he came toward the door as Harris was looking after her niece and nephew in Staten Island. Harris called Carleen in a panic and later locked herself in a bedroom. They wouldn’t see each other again for five years.

Slowly, the front she’d created started coming apart. She moved to an apartment in Rockaway Park in 2006—2 blocks from the beach!!! she wrote on MySpace. sweet beach parties, makin smores, bonfires, gettin drunk and watchin the sun rise. it dont get no better than that. But she found she couldn’t have a relationship, and she never was able to go out with friends without getting drunk. She tried to talk about the abuse with her family. “The Goodridge family is a different culture,” she says. “In Africa, everything’s ‘Skeletons have to stay in the closet, don’t put your business out there.’ They know what he did. They just for some reason decided to protect him.”

In April 2007, she swallowed some pills at work. When an ambulance arrived, she went home, refusing to talk about why she did it. A few weeks later, she learned from a family friend that her father was coming back to America and staying in her sister’s house—with her sister’s daughter.

Harris went to Staten Island that day half-hoping Carleen had thrown him out. Like Brigitte, Carleen had been raped and abused by their father, but she had been spared the trips to Liberia as a teenager. While Brigitte led an abstinent shell of a life, Carleen had had three children with three different men. “She deals with her past one way, and I deal with it another,” Harris says. She couldn’t understand how Carleen could take him in.

Now, watching her father with Edina, she had to do something. She searched the web for solutions. “The first thing I did was find out if I can go to the police. The statute of limitations says they couldn’t do much about it. He hadn’t touched me since I was 17, 18 in Africa, which wasn’t here. I couldn’t go to him and say I think he’s going to molest my niece. There’s no record. My family’s not backing me up. So I’m thinking, Stop him any way you can.

The first thing she learned was that it could be done. “Everyone always focuses on Lorena Bobbitt because it’s the most popular. But each and every case I researched, no one died.” She read about cases in China and in Europe. “And I start seeing how to do it without actually killing him.” On June 26, she bought a package of 50 scalpels on eBay for $6.83, including shipping.

On July 25, Harris had her final argument with Carleen. On her home video, titled “My Reasons,” she mentions Carleen’s children explicitly. “We both know what he wants to do with them.” She talks about what she’s about to do. “Somebody’s got to do something,” she says on the video. “Just know I’m doing this because I know he’s not going to change … I’m really sorry, guys. This is something that just has to be done.”

She and her father agreed to meet on the morning of July 28. He would come to her place, where they could talk.

He seemed even weaker than he did a month earlier. She didn’t know it, but he’d spent much of July in and out of the hospital, passing the kidney stone. They traveled back to her apartment together, and on the train, she saw him eyeing some young girls, each no older than 10. She held her tongue.

Home in Queens, she gave him a tour and offered him some water. She waited for him to say what was on his mind. But he said nothing.

“Well,” she said. “Do you know why we are here?”

“No,” he said. “Why?’”

“We’re not going to start that. You said you wanted to talk.”

He waved her on. “So?” he said. “Talk.”

She was nervous. She started from the beginning, talking about the first time he forced himself on her—the phone ringing, him trying to rape her, her crying and telling him to stop.

“How do you even remember that?” he said. “Weren’t you 3 years old?”

This was his response—not shock, not denial, just a casual dismissal. She went on. She talked about what she remembered from when she was 4—the oral sex. He denied it. She talked about what happened later, with the porn. He dissembled, using some of the same excuses he’d used in the past. “I was only teaching you to clean yourself—teaching you how to become a woman.” Finally, he parsed the matter to its finest point. “I never penetrated you, so it wasn’t wrong.”

He wasn’t denying it anymore. She felt right. She felt emboldened. She started talking about their last time together, when he tried to rape her and she wouldn’t let him. That’s when he interrupted her. “Well,” he said, “the reason why I wanted to talk to you is because of something that happened in Africa with Lovette.”

Harris fell silent as her father said what he must have been planning to say all along. He told her that her half-sister, back in Liberia and now about 18 years old, had been gang-raped as a child—during the years that Brigitte lived there with her. He was saying it was Brigitte’s fault that no one had been told about it earlier.

Her first thought was that this was a lie—one that played on her guilt and served as an alibi if Lovette ever claimed to be abused by him (she guessed Lovette already had been). The story managed to make Harris a victim all over again. It tapped into all the emotions that she had been harboring for weeks—self-loathing, guilt, rage.

Things moved quickly now. She was yelling, calling him a liar—“You knew what you did was wrong!” He stood up and took a step toward her. She reached for the pepper spray she kept clipped to her belt. She sprayed him. They fought and fell to the floor. The coffee table broke. She overpowered him—her security-guard training coming to some use.

He passed out. She looked for a way to restrain him. She found some handcuffs—a novelty she’d bought, she says, after her friends teased her about her job as a rent-a-cop. She put them on him, then noticed he was having trouble breathing.

She was in a full panic now—scrambling for a way to revive him. She splashed him with water and started calling his name. He awoke and started screaming. She decided she had to gag him. She tried a towel. She stuffed it in his mouth and wrapped duct tape around his head to secure it, leaving large holes so he could breathe.

She pulled down his pants. She used scissors first. When they didn’t work well, she went looking for the scalpels. To keep him still, she pressed her knee onto his windpipe as she crouched over him. One cut was enough. There wasn’t a lot of blood.

She thought, I am going to take it off and he’s not going to hurt anyone else.

She brought her father’s penis to the stove and turned on the flame. Only the smell of flesh made what she’d done seem real to her. Her stomach lurched. She shut it off, put the burnt organ in a paper towel, and bolted from the house. Later she would throw it under the boardwalk.

She talked to 911 several times, to report what happened and see if he was alive. But by the time the police arrived, there was nothing to be done. The cause of death was asphyxiation. Good­ridge had choked on the towel before he’d had a chance to bleed to death from his wounds.

On September 14, 2009, Brigitte Harris sat next to her lawyer in Queens State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens, her rainbow-colored hair extensions gone, her goth gear replaced by a demure black sweater and purple shawl. In the two years it had taken for her case to make it to trial, she had ballooned to more than 300 pounds—a combined effect of the junk food at Rikers Island and the antidepressants she’d been prescribed.

Harris had been declared mentally fit to stand trial—she was depressed and disassociated emotionally, therapists said, but never delusional. The facts of the case weren’t in dispute. The physical evidence showed how she did it; the confession video explained why. As for what may have driven her to do it, the prosecutor argued in her opening statement that whatever horrors Harris had endured at the hands of her father should have little bearing on the crime itself. “I’m not going to stand up here and say that the abuse did or didn’t happen,” Karen Ross said. “But what I will tell you is that at no time did she ever report it to the police, to child services, or even to members of her own family. Instead, this defendant chose to take the law into her own hands. She made a deliberate choice to make a plan, to execute that plan, to put that plan into action.”

Harris’s lawyer, Arthur Aidala, who tried the case alongside co-counsel Michael Cibella, offered the jury the same set of facts with a completely different interpretation. He wasn’t saying a crime hadn’t occurred; he wasn’t even saying Harris wasn’t in some way responsible. Instead he was saying that the jury should consider not just what Harris did to her father but everything her father had done to her. “If she [Ross] wants to talk about vengeance, you have to keep in mind, revenge only exists because there was an original sin,” he said. “Something that happened in the past.” Then, over the next hour, Aidala went through every known detail of the abuse, sparing no details. “The legal system wasn’t getting it right, so she had to stop him—because he just wouldn’t be stopped,” he said. “And the only way to stop him was to take off his weapon of mass destruction.”

The judge had given the jury the option of two different manslaughter charges, first- and second-degree, along with the second-degree murder charge. A conviction of second-degree murder also might have been downgraded to first-degree manslaughter on the grounds of “extreme emotional disturbance,” a mitigating defense that argues that the perpetrator had been somehow driven to act by what he or she perceived as a legitimate threat. Harris’s case, then, depended not just on whether the jury believed Harris was guilty but whether she had been, in some general way, provoked into an act of self-defense. She took the stand early on, and Aidala spent most of his time with her putting her father’s actions front and center. Later on, Carleen also took the stand. She couldn’t be asked directly about the abuse, but she managed to display sympathy toward her sister in full view of the jury.

Deliberations took just a day. On September 30, 2009, the jury acquitted Harris of both second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Instead, it found her guilty of second-degree manslaughter, the most lenient possible charge, for what was clearly a premeditated act. Even Harris was shocked. She had never thought that her story would inspire so much sympathy. “They knew I should have been charged with something, even though I didn’t intend to kill him,” she says now. “They were just trying to find a way to work around it.”

In order to settle on manslaughter 2, the jury had to be convinced that Harris’s actions, while clearly demonstrating a reckless disregard for human life, weren’t meant to kill. Some of the jurors seized on the fact that it wasn’t the cutting off of Goodridge’s penis that killed him, but the gagging. “I felt she didn’t seem reckless by putting the towel in her father’s mouth,” says juror George Tsourakis. “You see that all the time in the movies. I wouldn’t have thought he’d die from that, either. But her actions did contribute to his death, so the manslaughter-2 charge fit. We gave her what she deserved.”

Seven of the jurors were so supportive of Harris that in the days leading up to her sentencing, they wrote the judge, asking him to give her no more jail time at all. “Brigitte was sentenced on the day her father molested her,” wrote Blanche O’Donnell. “She deserves a life full of love and support, not prison.” One juror sent Harris a book as a gift. Still another sent her a Whitney Houston CD. Several social workers from Rikers pledged to find her a job and give her free counseling if the judge would set her free.

Judge Arthur Cooperman was unmoved. “The jury demonstrated leniency that the court may otherwise have exercised,” he said. He gave her the maximum prison term—five-to-fifteen years.

At Bedford Hills, Harris says she’s found therapy and support she never had before. “It would be wonderful to be one of the shiny, happy people, not just pretending to be happy and not having to have memories or flashbacks,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to happen, though. All the psychologists have said, ‘You can never get over it. You have to learn to deal.’ So that’s my big issue right now, learning how to deal.”

But she misses Edina, the niece she thought she was saving by attacking her father—and longs for word of Lovette, her half-sister, who she believes is still in Liberia, in the reach of her father’s family. At night, she’s been dreaming of being in Africa and not being able to help protect her. “Even when he came to the house, I didn’t think I could do it,” she says. “And then he had to mention Lovette.”

She’s had just one dream about Eric Goodridge. “We were in Africa. The weird part is, he was protecting me from somebody else who had abused me. He ran the guy over with his Jeep.”

I suggest that the dream could be about the life that she wanted—a life where she has a father who helps her.

She laughs softly. “Yeah,” she says. “Which he never did.”

Her first parole hearing is this week.

Should Brigitte Harris be granted parole?

A Daughter’s Revenge