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Friday, February 15, 2013

Cornelius Harris Trial from the Perspective of the Jury Box.


Patricia Vernucci was selected as an alternate juror for the trial of super max prisoner Cornelius Harris. She watched the trial and wants to share her experience, in hopes that the public will support Mr Harris and protect him.

Cornelius Harris represented himself and beat many of the charges against him, while on a 38 day long hungerstrike. He was facing 9 charges, ranging from aggravated attempted murder to felonious assault to possessing a weapon in a correctional facility.These charges stemmed from incidents of violence between Harris and correctional officers that occurred in 2009 and 2010.

During his opening statements Mr Harris informed the court that he had not eaten anything since January fourth. He was on hunger strike, but was not allowed to explain his demands or his reason why. The trial lasted three weeks, during which Mr Harris did not eat.


Mr Harris argued that these incidents were initiated or provoked by the guards, that guards would stand outside his cell and threaten him for hours. Harris argued that under those circumstances, when guards opened his cell on false pretense he had reason to believe his life was in danger and defended himself. The jury found Harris not guilty of attempted murder charges and only convicted him of weapons possession and lesser assault charges.

As an alternate, Patti watched the whole trial, but was not allowed to discuss the case with other jurors and was kept out of the deliberation room. What follows is a summary of Patti's thoughts and feelings from this experience.

"I wasn't allowed to deliberate, so when the jury was in the deliberation room for hours, and I was in a room by myself across the hall, pacing and hoping that the other jurors saw the same things I saw. When we went back into the courtroom to hear the verdict. When I heard 'not guilty' I was so relieved, but was trying hard to contain my emotions. When we got out to the hallway, I broke down and started crying. The other jurors asked me why, and I said, "that's how I would have voted and I'm so happy you all felt the same way. This guy was treated unfairly." Another juror told me "we all felt like you feel. They tortured him and he had to defend himself."

Then Prosecutor Andrews came into the hallway. He was not happy with the verdict. He said "I don't understand, what about the CO testimony?" Another juror said "we didn't find them to be credible." Prosecutor Andrews' response was very patronizing, "oh, and you found Harris to be credible?" The juror replied: "at least he was consistent." I feel that the only honest person who gave testimony was Mr Harris.

For example, they showed us a lot of video tapes, but we never saw the tapes for the time leading up to these incidents. Mr Harris said the officers would be standing at his door, calling him names and making threats for hours. This is why he prepared to defend himself. The prison administrators said they didn't have or couldn't find those tapes.

The prosecution also brought a woman investigator from the State Highway Patrol to the stand. She testified that when she would enter the cell block at OSP, if Mr Harris was in the exercise room he would take down his pants and masturbate at her. When she said this, I looked at Mr Harris, and he looked very surprised to hear it. Later, he asked her about a time when she was interviewing him, alone together in a little room, and if he did anything like that and she said no. He also asked if there had been any discipline reports for that happening and there hadn't. They would write him up for every little thing, but no reports about that. It was so obviously a lie. Nobody seemed even remotely credible. It seemed like they were just making stuff up as they went along.

They were also very patronizing and disrespectful to Mr Harris while he was cross examining them. They would just respond to questions with: "I don't understand, I can't understand you". As though Mr Harris wasn't articulate our understandable. It was very disconcerting, because we all understood. This was an all white jury, and we understood everything Mr Harris said.

Nothing added up from the prison's side. Something wasn't right. I walked away feeling that something is very very wrong at that prison. Eventually, Mr Harris took the stand and testified on his own behalf. His testimony started with describing pictures of his niece and his mother who died when he was young that guards had tore up and flushed down the toilet. While he was on the stand, delivering this testimony, he was in an orange jumpsuit, and shackles, with two guards sitting on either side of him. At least one of these guards was from OSP. Every time Mr Harris would talk about things, this guard would make a face, like he was snickering. As a juror, I was instructed not to show any emotion, but hearing this story of torn up pictures and watching the guards' faces, I had to put my head down, because I didn't want to show my feelings, but I think all of us in the jury felt it so strongly.

I feel like they have tortured this guy, mental torture. In Mr Harris' closing argument he admitted he was no angel, he said "I did stab officer Wine, I did have three shanks, but I feared for my life, they told me they were gonna kill me. Human instinct to preserve life takes over." I thought he was credible, because he admitted to these things, but because he admitted to them, the jury had to find him guilty of the weapons charges and the assault charge. Nobody thought it was right for Harris to stab the officer, but the prosecutor said "he could have notified the authorities".  The thing is, he did. He did notify people and nothing changed.

Mr Harris said he knows it's wrong to resort to violence, but when treated this badly, there's some sense of a small victory when you defend yourself. One small little victory. When the verdict was read, I looked at Mr Harris and he was very still, but then he quietly said "thank you" and his voice cracked. I hope this verdict also gave him a sense of a small victory. Afterward, I talked to the other jurors and we agreed that hopefully we gave him some sort of feeling as though someone had finally heard him.

When I got home Friday night at 8 PM I was sort of riding a high, feels like a victory. I was also very curious, because we weren't allowed to look anything up about him during the trial, so I was wondering what had happened, why they had targeted him, what the hunger strike was about and everything. So I looked him up and found all this information, about the hunger strike, about OSP and how things work there. I saw pictures of him, obviously older pictures from before the hunger strike and I could see how much weight he has lost, compared to what he looked like in court room. I work in a hospital, and through the whole trial, Mr Harris looked so weak. Every time he stood up was a struggle and his mouth would always get dry. He looked like someone who needed to be on an IV to get fluids. I immediately thought, "how can he defend himself physically?" Laying in bed Friday night, I couldn't sleep, I was worried. This small victory could make things worse for him. Did we help, or hinder him? It makes me worried that they are going to find him dead and say he killed himself.

That was another thing the guards said, they say he threatened to commit suicide. Mr Harris asked the administrators, the deputy warden, "did you ever hear me threaten that?" and they said no. He questioned them and they said proper procedure is to immediately send suicidal prisoners to mental health. He asked, "have you ever seen records of me going to mental health because of suicide threats?" No. For at least one of these incidents, the guards said the reason they opened his cell was to take him to mental health, but there was no paper work.

Something has to happen. Mr Harris needs to get sent somewhere safer. This man is not safe there. This experience has shaken me to my core. I'm not normally the kind of person who sympathizes with criminals. I know there are people who need to be there. My son is in jail, and I think that's good, that he needs to be there, because he has a serious substance abuse problem. We need to do something to make sure he is safe from these guards.


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After this interview, we heard that Mr Harris had been sentenced to 32 years for the charges that the jury "had to find him guilty of" and Patti was again shocked. She immediately wondered aloud if the judge was angry with their not-guilty verdict and gave Mr Harris a high sentence as a response.

Mr Harris ended his hunger strike Monday afternoon. When I told Patti she was very relieved, because maybe he'll be able to defend himself next time they attack him. She said she is going to write Mr Harris, try and stay in touch with him, to make sure the prison guards know people are paying attention to what's going on with him, so they can't get away with doing whatever they want to him.

2 comments:

  1. ケイリーたん2/15/13, 8:21 AM

    You think people with substance abuse problems need to be in prison? That's sad. They need mental health support, not prison.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I absolutely do not think people with substance abuse problems need to be in prison - my son has a severe substance abuse problem and to feed that habit - he steals - he has stolen from friends, family, employers - etc - he is now in county jail for stealing - my point was that he needs to be in jail right now for the thefts he keeps committing in order to feed his drug habit. Unfortunately for him and a lot of other people in my particular area - there is a severe lack of mental health support for substance abuse. My son actually feels that at this time - he is better off in jail than on the street and off the Heroin and Cocaine he was on while on the street. He actually feels that this may help him.

    ReplyDelete

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