WEST PALM BEACH -- A rubber band-wrapped wallet, cellphone earpiece, red ChapStick tube, 63 cents and several half-crushed pills were all that was left at the defense table 20 seconds after the judge told the Rev. James Richard Harris that it was time to go to jail.
Harris kept a somber expression Thursday as a court clerk read guilty verdicts for lewd and lascivious battery and five other charges involving minors.
Then the judge told him that he would be going directly to jail. As soon as the words left the judge’s mouth, Harris reached for his bottle of water on the defense table.
Deputies immediately lunged toward him, but by the time they tackled Harris, he had stuffed a handful of pills into his mouth.
“Oh, my God, it’s cyanide,” a couple of public defender’s office interns whispered as they stood from their seats in the back of the courtroom.
“Spit it out! Spit it out!” deputies yelled at Harris as they pinned him on his stomach to the floor.
And so ended the sometimes bizarre three-day trial for Harris, the 64-year-old former Belle Glade minister who for years was a fixture on the sidelines at Glades Central High School’s football games.
Prosecutors Chrichet Mixon and Michael Kugler told jurors that Harris used his connection to the program to lure his 15-year-old victim into a friendship, promising him introductions to football scouts and trainers. That victim told jurors Tuesday that the hope of those introductions led him to allow Harris twice to perform a sex act on him, and eventually direct him to engage in lewd acts on camera while a pornographic movie played in the background.
Another victim said she was just 14 when she and her 16-year-old boyfriend, a boy she described as Harris’ godson, were having sex at Harris’ house and discovered Harris was taping them.
The two victims stayed in court Tuesday as jurors watched the videos, but were absent for Thursday’s verdict and what appears to have been a subsequent suicide attempt from Harris. After a group of deputies tackled him and Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes asked them to call paramedics, other deputies immediately cleared the courtroom.
On her way out, Mixon said Harris’ actions came as no surprise.
“I think it was a cowardly thing to do, and it shows that he knows what he did, and that he’s facing a long time in prison,” Mixon said.
Though Harris was charged with the offenses related only to the two teens at the time of his April 2009 arrest, many in the Belle Glade community said he was rumored to have molested some of the area’s up-and-coming football stars for decades. Mixon, who said it was difficult finding witnesses to come forward in the case, said she hoped the guilty verdicts would show others in the community the benefits of coming forward and working with prosecutors.
Harris’ court-appointed attorney Chris Haddad stayed behind until after paramedics wheeled Harris from the courtroom on a stretcher. Harris lay back with his eyes closed, his dress shirt unbuttoned, undershirt damp and his right shoe on the stretcher.
The scene was reminiscent of a case in an Arizona courtroom in late July in which Michael Marin, a former Wall Street trader, killed himself by swallowing cyanide immediately after he was convicted of arson. Marin, 53, was caught on video, slumping forward, head in hands, and he appeared to swallow something that had been hidden in his fingers. He also drank from a water bottle. Marin went into convulsions and was pronounced dead in the courtroom.
In the Harris case, Haddad frequently stopped his questioning of witnesses during the trial to confer with his client, who was often animated as he appeared to press his attorney to pursue lines of questioning that Kastrenakes shot down over and over.
On Wednesday, jurors spent nearly an entire afternoon outside the courtroom as Harris changed his mind several times about additional witnesses he wanted Haddad to call on his behalf. He eventually settled on Clarence Young, a barber who deputies had to transport from Belle Glade. His testimony appeared in the end to do Harris more harm than good.
Haddad, on his way to the courthouse elevator Thursday, still appeared shaken by the afternoon’s events. His client now faces up to 80 years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 5.
“It’s just hard to see someone that you’re trying to help do something like that to himself,” he said.