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Bayshore rapist gets life in prison

TAMPA

The Bayshore rapist knew what was coming. So did five court bailiffs who stood near him, keenly aware of the shackled man's tendency toward drama.

But the defendant who cross-examined his own victim, who caused a near-mistrial, who was yanked out of the courtroom last month after an outburst, remained calm Thursday as Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe sentenced him to life in prison.

Luis Munuzuri-Harris had his mind on an appeal. And considering the many twists in his case, some legal minds think he could get a new trial.

Other judges will make that decision. Until then, Harris, who was taken straight from court to prison, will have to live with the words of Judge Tharpe:

"You are a monster."

• • •

The case, and the 31-year-old man at the center of it, spiraled earlier this year into one of the more bizarre legal episodes to unfold in the Hillsborough courthouse. At times, it outraged the judge, frustrated lawyers and fascinated those who study workings of justice.

Harris, accused of posing as a cop to rob and rape a 28-year-old woman along Bayshore Boulevard, was a vocal defendant long before his January trial.

He stood before the judge and used language a lawyer would, taking it upon himself to pen his own motions, complaining when his public defenders said they needed more time to prepare his case. He refused to give it to them, holding firm to his right to a speedy trial and opting to represent himself, even cross-examining his victim.

After jurors watched him struggle for three days, Harris asked for a lawyer, calling his attempt at self-representation a "tremendous error in judgment."

The request threw his trial into legal limbo, with attorneys calling for a mistrial. But Tharpe, who knew that's what Harris wanted, said he would spare the victim a second turn on the witness stand.

At the sentencing, Assistant Public Defender Maria Pavlidis repeated her motion for a new trial.

Some complaints were procedural. She said the law requires judges to hold something called a Faretta hearing at every stage of a trial in which a defendant is representing himself, to assess legal competence. Tharpe did conduct a hearing before the trial, and at several points afterward asked Harris if he wanted an attorney.

But Pavlidis said Tharpe's later inquiries fell short of the law.

She also spoke of limitations she and other public defenders faced when they had to jump in at the last minute.

"We had to piecemeal everything," she said. "Mr. Harris was not guaranteed his fundamental right to a fair trial in this case."

Tharpe disagreed.

He said his questions were adequate, that the one time Harris said he needed a lawyer, he got one. He said public defenders got a four-day recess to prepare.

And he said this:

"Mr. Harris set out on a plan well before his trial was ever scheduled in an attempt to derail the legal proceedings. …

"Mr. Harris is, without question, one of the most manipulative and controlling defendants that has ever been in this court."

• • •

His public defenders joined him Thursday, but Harris wanted to have a say.

He entered court with a letter for the judge, giving all the reasons his sentencing should be postponed.

He wanted Tharpe to recuse himself, repeating his litany of accusations about unfairness.

He wanted time to replace his public defenders with high-profile lawyer Jeff Brown, who was quoted in news stories that the case has the makings of an appeal.

And he wanted people to speak on his behalf, but said his attorneys didn't give them enough notice. Some friends from DeLand wrote letters, but only his mother showed.

The judge said the sentencing would proceed.

"You're already predetermining a sentence," Harris told him.

"I'm not going to argue with you, Mr. Harris."

Unlike many sentencings, there were no emotional appeals from either side. Harris' mother remained silent. Outside the courtroom, she would weep aloud but still decline to speak.

And the victim could not speak. Hospitalized with complications from kidney problems, which she suffers along with lupus, she asked Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Johnson to communicate her desire: a sentence that would not allow Harris to harm any other woman.

Harris called the victim's absence "convenient." He tearfully told his mother he loved her, and he directed a speech at members of the media as he maintained his innocence. He'd been to prison before, for charges including grand theft. Because of that, he knew enhanced sentencing guidelines meant he would get a life sentence.

He said he was prepared for a "theatrical statement" from the judge, but that appellate judges would get the last word.

The last word on Thursday belonged to Judge Tharpe:

"It is obvious to this court that in an attempt to overcome your inadequacies as a man, you have to used the guise and the rules of a police officer to attempt to control your victims. …

"Those days are over, Mr. Harris."

"Until the court of appeals …" the defendant interrupted.

But Tharpe continued:

"Your day is over."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Bayshore rapist gets life in prison 02/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 18, 2011 12:36am]
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