[Ppnews] Cornelius Harris Trial from the Perspective of the Jury Box - Hunger Strike Suspended After 38 Days

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Feb 15 10:47:46 EST 2013

    /Two Articles Follow/

    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 
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.

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.


Feb 15th, 2013, Youngstown Ohio-

      *Hunger Strike Suspended After 38 Days *

"I did break my hunger strike, with none of my issues satisfied" said 
Cornelius Harris, in a message to supporters sent on Monday. He says he 
"felt it was better to come off and do some ground work rather than risk 
my overall health". Mr Harris had been on hunger strike since January 
4th, making him the longest known hunger striker at Ohio's super max 
prison, Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP).

While on hunger strike, Mr Harris also went to trial, defending himself 
against criminal charges stemming from incidents of violence with OSP 
correctional officers. He was facing 9 felony charges, including two 
counts of aggravated attempted murder. He represented himself, arguing 
that the fights were self-defense against guards who were systematically 
harassing him and regularly threatening his life. A jury found him not 
guilty of the most serious charges, but the judge sentenced him to 32 
years for the remaining assault and weapons possession charges. The 
maximum sentence Judge Maureen Sweeny could have given Mr Harris was 36 

According to Patricia Vernucci, the alternate juror in the trial, Mr 
Harris was "the only honest person who gave testimony". She thought the 
prison guards, administrators and investigators called to the stand by 
the  prosecution were "very patronizing and disrespectful... it seemed 
like they were just making stuff up as they went along."

Ms. Vernucci also says she was "shaken to the core" by what she heard in 
the courtroom, "I walked away feeling that something is very very wrong 
at that prison... this man is not safe there." Mr. Harris sites concern 
for his safety as a factor in his decision to end the hunger strike: "in 
this environment, physical health is very important, especially when you 
are such a target as I am."

According to Mr Harris, harassment and attacks by guards continued 
during the trial and hunger strike. On Sunday Jan 20th, guards attempted 
to move him from the medical cell he had been placed in due to the 
hunger strike to a substandard "R&D" cell. "According to policy a cell 
must meet certain criteria to house someone and this R & D cell was 
simply a holding cell and at the time it was flooded out and the sink 
and toilet didn't work" Mr Harris reports. They intended to hold him in 
the cell until Tuesday, because Monday was Martin Luther King day. 
According to Mr Harris, "they put guys in this cell as punishment and 
because I was taking this case to trial they wanted to punish me." Mr 
Harris refused and resisted the transfer: "as I will always do when my 
rights are being violated, I refused to go in that inhumane cell and the 
warden authorized for an extraction team to gas me out and drag me to 
the hole. I hadn't ate for two and a half weeks at the time, so I was 
too weak to put up a fight, but it was principle, that's why I resisted."

Mr Harris' trial was interrupted for medical treatment in response to 
his deteriorating health due to the hunger strike. The harassment and 
threats continued at Franklin Medical Center. Judge Sweeny ordered Mr 
Harris back to finish trial, against the FMC doctor's advice. More than 
34 days without food can have serious medical consequences, like organ 
failure. During his hunger strike, Mr Harris lost over 50 pounds and 
experienced shooting pains in his legs and torso. He described it as 
"the worst pain I have felt in my life."

When Mr Harris was returned to his cell at OSP after the trial, he found 
that most of his personal property- 30 items worth over $300 were 
missing. Monday morning, OSP Warden David Bobby met with Mr Harris and 
said he would investigate and reimburse Mr Harris for what is lost. 
According to Ms. Vernucci, hearing testimony about guards tearing up and 
throwing Mr Harris' personal photographs in the toilet was one of the 
most affecting parts of the trial. She also expressed concern for Mr 
Harris' safety: "through the whole trial he looked so weak... how can he 
defend himself physically?" She was relieved to hear that he had resumed 

Ms. Vernucci's full statement and more information about Mr Harris can 
be found online at RedBirdPrisonAbolition.org.

Mr Harris has spent 3 years on level 5 at OSP with no conduct reports. 
The incidents discussed at trial occurred in 2009 and 2010. He was on 
hunger strike demanding interaction with visitors and other prisoners, 
so he could demonstrate an ability to be safely transferred out of OSP. 
Prisoners on level 5 are held in 7 x 11 foot cells 23 hours a day and 
are allowed no physical contact with visitors or other prisoners at any 
time. In June of 2012, a group of death-sentenced prisoners who've been 
on level 5 at OSP since it opened in 1998 were allowed the kind of 
contact Mr Harris is demanding following a 9 day hunger strike one of 
them undertook.

David Bobby, the Warden at OSP refused to make any public comments on 
the conduct of his guards or on Mr Harris' trial and hunger strike.
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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