Mistrial request denied, Tampa Bayshore rape trial will continue

Luis Munuzuri-Harris is seated in court with Assistant Public Defender Chuck Traina, left, and Public Defender Maria Pavlidis, who will represent him for the remainder of his trial.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Luis Munuzuri-Harris is seated in court with Assistant Public Defender Chuck Traina, left, and Public Defender Maria Pavlidis, who will represent him for the remainder of his trial.

TAMPA — Everyone warned him, but he didn't listen.

He insulted his lawyers, chose to represent himself. Then three days into trial, when he found his case in peril, he turned to a judge for rescue, asking for his old attorneys and a brand new trial.

But on Thursday, Bayshore rape suspect Luis Munuzuri-Harris didn't get a mistrial.

Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe ruled that his trial will continue Tuesday. The same jurors who saw Harris struggle through his case and confront his alleged victim will watch his reappointed lawyers attempt a defense without having seen the first half of the trial.

"We are at this juncture of the trial because of no one's fault but Mr. Harris," Tharpe said.

"He's going to have to live with his consequences."

• • •

Harris, 31, is accused of posing as a police officer to pull over a 28-year-old woman, then robbing and raping her.

But the question of his guilt faded into the background in the 24 hours after Harris announced he wanted an attorney. In its place hung two questions:

Who would represent him?

And could the lawyers possibly jump into a trial in progress?

The legal tangle roped in two judges, two Spanish interpreters, prosecutors, a lawyer from the regional conflict office and three from the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office, including Public Defender Julianne Holt herself.

They scrambled for case law and huddled behind closed doors as jurors sat in a courtroom, oblivious and waiting.

The first issue: Harris wanted his former public defenders reappointed despite his tumultuous history with the office. Tharpe had accused him of making complaints to set up an ineffective counsel appeal.

Circuit Judge William Fuente held a hearing, which was closed to the public because of issues of attorney-client privilege, where Harris agreed the complaints were baseless. Afterward, Judge Tharpe reappointed Assistant Public Defenders Maria Pavlidis and Chuck Traina.

They stepped in immediately for the fight of the day, their request for a mistrial, which they said they needed to give them time to prepare their defense. They said evidence has been developing, even in recent days.

How could they cross-examine witnesses, challenge evidence, even give closing statements, without having seen Harris' defense?

How could Harris possibly get a fair trial?

Assistant State Attorney Michael Sinacore said the victim, too, had rights. She had endured cross-examination by the man she said raped her. A mistrial would arm the defense for yet another round of questions.

And rape victims, he said, don't do well in retrials. The process desensitizes them. The prosecution would suffer, and Harris would benefit.

The prosecutor provided translated transcripts of jailhouse phone conversations Harris had with his mother and fiancee in the trial's first two days. Apart from calling the alleged victim a liar, his former lawyer a "bastard" and telling his fiancee that he'd been admiring her butt during the rape trial, he made a statement that caught the state's attention:

"The only way that I can get another jury is if there is a mistrial. … This is the only way."

Tharpe didn't find that the call rose to the level of a scheme, even after Harris' mother made allegations of juror misconduct and he told his fiancee to brief his mom, a witness, about the trial.

But the judge did find that Harris wanted a "second bite of the apple." Tharpe didn't want to give it to him.

"Clearly, if I were to deny mistrial," the judge said, "he wouldn't like it. But I don't believe it would be an injustice."

Lawyers across the Tampa Bay area have been riveted by this unusual legal territory.

Jeff Brown, a defense attorney and professor at Stetson University College of Law, wonders about justice for Harris.

"I'm not so sure that he's gotten a fair trial in the sense that we're finding out what really happened," Brown said.

Harris says he and the alleged victim had consensual sex after going to a bar. He has tried to point out inconsistencies in the victim's rape account, but Brown said he missed a lot of opportunities. To get to the truth in trial, he said, facts need to be tested competently on both sides.

Could lawyers recall the victim as a defense witness? Yes, Brown said. But it's not likely. They would be limited as to the questions they could ask on direct examination and couldn't ask leading questions. He says the case has the makings of an appeal.

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

Mistrial request denied, Tampa Bayshore rape trial will continue 01/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 6:59am]

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