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Sheriff gets four-year prison term

 
Published March 25, 1995|Updated Oct. 3, 2005

A sobbing Al Harrison, the suspended Gulf County sheriff, was sentenced to four years and three months in federal prison Friday.

"I swear to you as the Lord is my witness, I didn't do this," Harrison said as he held his right arm straight up and tried to stifle tears.

Harrison was convicted of violating the civil rights of five women who were in the Gulf County Jail between 1989 and 1994. A dozen women testified at his trial in January that Harrison used his position as sheriff to make sexual advances. Most of the women said he forced them to perform oral sex on him in his office in return for privileges.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Lacey Collier imposed the maximum sentence he could give under federal sentencing guidelines. Collier said Harrison violated his position of trust and lied when he testified in court.

"Inmates do remain human beings," Collier said as he discussed the power sheriffs have over people in jail. He also ordered Harrison to obtain mental health treatment.

Collier also had a few words for news organizations that identified the victims. The Times has not identified the women.

"These were victims of sexual abuse," Collier said. "They also suffered from media abuse, particularly the television stations that publicly exposed them and held them up to ridicule. They also suffered from the comments of those associated with this case."

Harrison had labeled the women "trash," and said the women are drug addicts and alcoholics unworthy of belief.

Moments before Harrison was sentenced, his attorney, Don Modisett, questioned whether the women who performed oral sex on Harrison had suffered at all and suggested that they were just seeking favors.

"Each woman almost casually talked about what he did," Modisett said. "They voiced no displeasure over the acts. Almost all of these women were in effect bribing the sheriff to get something to which they were not entitled."

Some of the women said they acquiesced to the sheriff's demands because they wanted to become trusties at the jail or get out on a Christmas pass to spend time with their children.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Hensel called Modisett's allegations "outrageous."

"How many of you would want your wife, your daughter, your sister to go through what he made inmates in the county jail do?" Hensel said. "This isn't a road deputy who pulled someone over on the road and touched them on the bottom or the breast along the roadway; it's an elected sheriff."

Modisett unsuccessfully tried to get the judge to lower the maximum sentence, denouncing an attempt to paint Harrison as a liar because he has given varying versions of what happened in his office. At trial Harrison testified that the only time he had sex with anyone in his office was on one occasion in 1985 with his wife.

A few days later Harrison told a reporter that he had had sex in his office with Linda Richter, a former secretary. She was found dead a few days after she told Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents that Harrison had forced her to perform oral sex on him over a period of several years. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Modisett said Harrison failed to mention Mrs. Richter on the witness stand "out of deference to his wife and family. . . ."

Harrison said he had been told not to mention Mrs. Richter because her death was not admissible in the federal trial.

Prosecutors did not attempt to tell the jury about her death, but did produce copies of suicide notes she wrote as evidence at sentencing. The letters describe her attempts to reject Harrison's demands.

"It's testimony from the grave," Hensel said as he introduced copies of the letters. "She suffered exactly the same kind of abuse. She was a woman who he exercised authority over."

Modisett suggested she was mentally ill and might have killed herself because state investigators were using her as a witness against Harrison.

Hensel noted that the letters left behind by Mrs. Richter blamed Harrison.

Judge Collier rejected Harrison's explanation, saying that the sheriff committed perjury and attempted to obstruct justice.

"The facts suggest there was interference with the investigation and tampering with evidence and I find that perjury was committed during the trial," Collier said. "It couldn't be clearer. He said he had no sex with anyone in his office other than his wife. No one could misunderstand the purpose of his testimony."

Harrison's wife, Bonnie, cried and begged to see the judge as Harrison was led out of the courtroom.

"We love you. We're not finished fighting," sobbed his daughter Donna.

Harrison was taken back to the Federal Detention Center in Tallahassee, where he has been held since a jury convicted him Jan. 27. He will be assigned to another facility by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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