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Jury finds Harris guilty of posing as a cop to rob and rape woman

TAMPA — The verdict hit Luis Munuzuri-Harris so hard he dropped to his seat and wept.

He was guilty, a jury decided late Thursday night. He posed as a cop to rob and rape a woman along Bayshore Boulevard.

He had spent nine hours awaiting the news in a holding cell, stripped of his tie and his belt.

He could spend the rest of his life in prison. He'll get his sentence Feb. 17, though his attorneys plan to appeal.

He was led out of the courtroom for jail, head hung, after telling his mother he loved her. He said one last thing, at the mention of a second case in which he is accused of posing as a cop and pistol-whipping a man:

"I'm not waiving speedy trial!"

The same declaration led him, three weeks ago, to ditch his attorneys who wanted time to prepare. Most defendants facing steep charges waive the right to a trial within 175 days of arrest. Harris refused. He opted for a failed three-day attempt at self-representation, in which jurors saw him struggle as he cross-examined the victim and was admonished by the judge.

Those jurors got one last image of Harris before they went in for deliberations: the defendant being yanked from the courtroom.

Harris, who made a sudden request for attorneys midway through the trial, wanted to have the last word in his defense.

And he got it.

Just after a prosecutor finished closing arguments, Harris stood and pointed to the victim.

The sudden move prompted one juror to duck.

Harris began to blurt out things not admitted into the trial as evidence.

"What they're not telling you is she has four DUIs," he bellowed. "She's been arrested four times."

"Sit down!" yelled Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe. "Get him out of the courtroom right now!"

Jurors watched as three bailiffs grabbed Harris and pushed him out a back door. One covered Harris' mouth, but the defendant kept trying to say something about the victim laughing in an interview.

As if nothing had happened, the judge immediately began to instruct jurors on the law they needed to use to deliberate.

Tharpe didn't address the outburst. He said he didn't think jurors heard much over the judge's yells.

And nobody moved for a mistrial, something Harris told his mother he wanted soon after the trial began. The reason, he told her: He didn't like his jury.

The four men and two women worked for more than nine hours Thursday, asking for transcripts of testimony. They told the judge they wanted to be thorough. They ate lunch in the courtroom. Dinner, too. Even the alternates who got dismissed stuck around, curious.

They had spent two weeks with a pinhole view of one of the most chaotic, bizarre trials in the court's recent history, kept out of the loop last week as the judge pondered a mistrial. In another courtroom, the jurors had talked football and played card games.

Finally, on Tuesday, they got back to work listening to testimony. They heard closing arguments Thursday from a prosecutor and a public defender who summed up both accounts of the night of July 29.

Assistant Public Defender Maria Pavlidis told jurors not to hold Harris' lawyering attempt against him.

"Although that may not have been the smartest decision," she said, "he is not on trial to test his common sense."

Juror Abel Ortiz later said he and the others based their guilty verdict solely on the evidence provided and didn't weigh in any of Harris' outbursts, tears or his attempt to represent himself.

"That didn't have any weight in the decision we made," he said.

Pavlidis told jurors the victim's story has changed and the truth should never change.

Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Johnson said it was Harris' story that kept changing. He lied to detectives during an interview, saying he had never seen the victim. Johnson said Harris was sweating on the video they watched, trying to keep his lies straight.

The prosecutor asked them to consider this:

If he'd had consensual sex with the victim, why did police find him hiding on a rooftop?

Just after that question, the defendant shot from his seat.

His mother watched with approval. The jury needed to know, said Barbara Harris, "what kind of girl" the victim is.

The victim has been arrested on suspicion of DUI, but jail records show her blood alcohol content was 0.00 and court records show no convictions.

Jurors didn't know Harris served a prison sentence for grand theft and was acquitted of a 1999 rape charge.

Harris' mother clutched a tissue when she spoke with the St. Petersburg Times and cried over the possibility her son could spend the rest of his life in prison.

"He's all I have," she said as she waited for the verdict. "In my heart, I know he's innocent."

The victim, too, lingered.

At the beginning of the day, she'd taken the front-row seat.

A prosecutor had reached for her hand and told her, "We have to trust the jury."

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

Jury finds Harris guilty of posing as a cop to rob and rape woman 01/20/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 12:03am]
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