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Mistrial considered after Bayshore rape trial suspect decides he needs attorney

Our Let's Talk blog has previous stories and full video coverage of the Bayshore rape trial.

TAMPA — It was a tremendous error in judgment.

Bayshore rape suspect Luis Munuzuri-Harris, 31, used those very words to describe his decision to ditch his public defender and attempt to represent himself in a trial this week where conviction could mean life in prison.

A huge question now looms: Will the judge call a mistrial?

Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe did not decide Wednesday. He had some thinking to do.

On one side, defense attorneys associated with the case say they need time to prepare, and enough of it to require a new trial. Last week, Harris' former public defender, Maria Pavlidis, said she would have needed four more months, prompting Harris to go solo. Now that he's willing to waive his right to a speedy trial, a continuance would trigger a mistrial.

But on the other side is the 28-year-old victim, who this week already was subjected to the questions of a man she said posed as a cop, pulled her over, robbed and raped her along Bayshore Boulevard in July. In a new trial, she would have to testify again.

"All of this could have been avoided if Mr. Harris had cooperated with his attorneys from the beginning," the judge said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Harris' new appointed attorney was Christopher Boldt. But Harris said his once-appointed public defenders had a six-month head start. Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt was present for discussions.

Harris' announcement came after lunch, when an analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was slated to testify. The defendant faded in the face of scientific testimony. He wasn't ready for that kind of cross examination.

Harris says he and the victim had consensual sex after he rendered aid on the road and they went to a bar.

Once he had an attorney, Harris stipulated to the fact that his DNA was found inside the victim, meaning the analyst will no longer need to testify.

Medical testimony also tripped him up. When a Crisis Center of Tampa Bay nurse examiner said lacerations and abrasions on the victim's most intimate areas were consistent with rape, Harris asked, "People engaged in consensual sex don't get a little rough from time to time?"

If the judge calls a mistrial, he will be giving Harris what the defendant wants.

According to prosecutor Jennifer Johnson, Harris spoke to his girlfriend on Tuesday and, in the recorded jail call, told her in Spanish he didn't like the jury panel but used all his strikes during selection and was now stuck.

Harris said the only way out was a mistrial, Johnson said.

She said he also told his girlfriend to pass along information about the trial proceedings to his mother, who is a witness in the case and has to stay outside of the courtroom. He told her to lie if asked about it, Johnson said.

In court, Harris turned around to look at his girlfriend. Tharpe told bailiffs to remove her and to separate her from the mother. They sat for the rest of the afternoon on opposite ends of the courthouse hall, bailiffs watching over them.

Heated words had been flying since the day began.

Wednesday morning, Harris asked the judge for a mistrial, saying his mother observed a juror discussing the case with the panel, a claim Tharpe had already investigated and found to be wrong.

Other problems: A reporter for the St. Petersburg Times was posting updates on Twitter. Photos in the news showed Harris in a jail jumpsuit and shackles. Relatives in Mexico were hearing about it all.

He wanted the judge to appoint an investigator to see if jurors had been exposed.

And another thing: Harris had witnessed the judge and the prosecutor smiling at each other in front of the jury. "This is not a high school," Harris said.

"Let me stop you right now," the judge responded.

Tharpe said Harris had been making baseless accusations in an attempt to build an appeal case. He did it with his former public defenders, Tharpe said, and he was doing it now.

He would not appoint an investigator, would not bar reporters from publishing news. If Harris didn't follow the rules, Tharpe said, he would terminate Harris' self-representation.

Harris said, "I'm not a dog that you need to bark orders at."

Not long after that exchange, Harris got himself into a line of questioning with a detective that put him dangerously close to "opening the door" to evidence that was excluded from the case.

Had a detective answered his question about a police identification photo pack, prosecutors might have been able to introduce damaging details of a second case in which Harris is also accused of posing as an undercover narcotics officer.

But the defendant had an unlikely savior — the prosecutor, who objected.

Tharpe sent the jury out of the courtroom and explained what had just happened.

"You are at your own peril," the judge told Harris.

The warnings were collecting.

The objections, compounding.

It would all sink in.

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

Get updates

To see the latest on this trial, go to tampabay.com and follow reporter Alexandra Zayas as she tweets from the courtroom.

Mistrial considered after Bayshore rape trial suspect decides he needs attorney 01/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 13, 2011 9:39am]
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