LARGO — Dad says he is "a hardworking parent of six children."
Mom says they are "family oriented parents."
But prosecutors said James Edward Harris and his wife, Evette, were not exactly good role models one night in 2008, when they were helping their teenage son Jaqueal in the robbery of a St. Petersburg convenience store.
This all led to an agonizing morning for the Harris couple, who came to court on Tuesday for their trial on robbery charges. Mom and Dad each faced a possible life sentence if convicted.
The agonizing part was their choice: Prosecutors offered to let the Harrises plead guilty to grand theft. This would make them convicted felons and would mean they were admitting to roles in their son's crime.
But if they pleaded guilty, they could get out of the Pinellas County Jail that very day, after spending 19 months behind bars.
On Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys made last-minute negotiations on possible plea deals. Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger made it clear he wasn't going to accept a misdemeanor plea or a deal withholding a formal finding of guilt.
"Forget it. That's a bunch of nonsense. That's not going to happen," Ripplinger said heatedly. He said the couple could "rot in jail for the rest of their lives" if they chose to.
After that, Evette Harris said through her attorney she did plan to go to trial, even with the possible life sentence hanging over her head. Attorney Grady Irvin later said, "I have never had a client in my life that wanted to go to trial more." But in the end, after discussing the matter, she decided to take the deal and regain her freedom.
Her husband followed suit, partly because another of their sons ships out for Iraq with the military in a few days. "He wanted to get out, see his son before he went to Iraq, and see his kids again," said his attorney, Dave Molloy.
Without their pleas, both Harrises also would have faced violation of probation charges. Both were on probation for failing to return rented property.
James Harris also was on probation for workers' compensation fraud.
Evette Harris said in a letter to the Pinellas-Pasco Court last summer that she and her husband have six children, then ages 3 to 19, and three grandchildren.
"We eat together, pray together and five of my children (have) never been separated from each other."
She wrote that "it was very devastating" and "so painful" to be taken away from the children and accused of helping their son commit a robbery.
Molloy said he thought prosecutors' real target in the case had been Jaqueal Harris, 19. He pleaded guilty last week to the convenience store robbery and other crimes and received a 15-year prison sentence. He also goes on trial later this year in a second-degree murder case, and has been mentioned as a suspect in another slaying.
Police said Jaqueal Harris was one of four people in a car with James and Evette Harris as they drove to Sunshine Foods, 2210 62nd Ave. S. A witness said he saw Jaqueal Harris give about $100 to his father just after the robbery.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.