LARGO — Jaqueal Edward Harris came to court Friday to be sentenced for second-degree murder, with one last chance to speak to the judge and family members of the man he killed.
He decided to make his statement in music, soulfully singing "I never intended to kill a human being" and other verses that weren't easy to make out.
And after his song, he said "I'm sorry" for killing Clarence Mitchell Jr.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip J. Federico seemed much more moved by Harris' crimes than his crooning.
"He's sticking guns in people's face, robbing them," Federico said. And on top of that, "for less than a $50 debt he shows up at this guy's door and shoots him … when an 11 year-old's nearby and the other people are in the house?"
"Someone who does that can't be out on the street," Federico said. "He can't be out on the street ever again."
Federico sentenced Harris to life in prison for the October 2008 murder of Mitchell, 37, a Tropicana Field employee who had been looking forward to working Game 1 of the World Series when he was killed. A prosecutor said Harris came to Mitchell's house at 13th Avenue S in St. Petersburg to collect a drug debt of $20 to $30. Mitchell's brother, his girlfriend and her two children were in the house.
Harris already has been serving 15 years in prison for three armed burglaries and had other convictions for bribery, burglary and aggravated assault.
Mitchell's sister Monise Jackson drove from Charlotte, N.C, for the sentencing, and said Clarence was "my very, very best friend, my brother, my everything."
"We are suffering so bad," she said. But she did say the experience had brought her closer to God.
During Harris' statement, which came later, he said that he, too, had become closer to God.
Harris' attorney, Daniel Hernandez, argued Harris should get something close to 28 years in prison, the bottom of state sentencing guidelines, because of long-standing mental problems and his young age. Harris is 20 and was 17 at the time of the shooting.
Harris' mother, Evette, also spoke at the hearing, saying her son had not benefitted from proper medical attention as a youth. She was composed as she spoke to the judge, but broke into tears when her son began singing and continued to sob for the rest of the hearing.
"I love you, 'Queal,' " she called out at the end.
Sitting in back of the courtroom, Corretta Gilmore watched the hearing intently.
She had a reason. Her daughter, Malayshia Gamble, 15, was shot and killed in January 2009 and police interviewed Harris in connection with her death. No one has been charged.
Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger said the case is "still under investigation and there will be some decision made on that by the end of the year."
Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8232.