Ohio Prisoner Represents Himself, Beats Attempted Murder Charges
An Ohio supermax prisoner, representing himself while on a month-long hunger strike, won an acquittal in February 2013 on attempted murder charges stemming from fights with prison guards, though he was convicted of lesser charges.
Cornelius “Soja” Harris, serving a 97-year sentence at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) in Youngstown, argued to a jury in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court that ongoing abuse by prison guards left him no choice but to fight back.
“I have been in prison for a long time now, and I never expected prison to be easy,” he said in his opening arguments on January 24, 2013. “But the way I have been treated by guards has crossed the line to inhumane.”
After firing his attorney, Mark Lavelle, who sat in the court gallery during the trial, Harris chose to defend himself – cross-examining witnesses, presenting video evidence and offering an “occasional rant against the prison system,” according to one news report.
In describing to the jury surveillance video from 2009 and 2010 that showed him fighting with guards and allegedly pushing one guard down a flight of stairs, Harris admitted that the videos showed him “acting out,” but argued the guards had instigated the violence.
He told jurors that to escape an assault by a guard, he managed to free his hands from handcuffs and punched the guard twice. As a result, Harris said, the guard ran and fell down the stairs rather than being pushed.
He also cross-examined a prison investigator about doctored surveillance videos; the investigator testified, however, that video was never doctored.
Before closing arguments and jury deliberations began, Harris’ trial was suspended when he was transferred from OSP to the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus due to his deteriorating health. He had initiated a hunger strike to protest prison security-review policies and harassment by prison staff.
Harris, who has been incarcerated since 2007, has been held as a maximum-security, Level-5 prisoner in solitary confinement since the fights with guards that prompted the attempted murder and assault charges. He is confined to his cell 23 hours a day and his access to visitors, commissary and programming is restricted, if not entirely prohibited under some circumstances. According to Harris, however, he hasn’t had an incident report in three years.
While refusing to eat during his hunger strike, Harris demanded a chance to “step down” or reduce his security level, as well as more security reviews, recreation time with other prisoners, contact visits and additional time out of his cell.
By the time the court reconvened Harris’ trial on February 5, 2013 – against doctors’ recommendations – he had reportedly lost 50 pounds and was experiencing sharp pains in his legs. Doctors had warned that continuing to refuse food would soon result in organ failure.
On February 8, after 35 days on his hunger strike, the 12-person jury found Harris not guilty of one count of attempted murder and three counts of felonious assault, sparing him from spending an additional 71 years in prison. Two counts of attempted aggravated murder were reduced to felonious assault, and he was also found guilty of three counts of possession of a dangerous weapon.
According to RedBird Prison Abolition, a website that posted earlier statements made by Harris about abusive prison guards, he had not given up his hunger strike by the evening after his trial ended. In fact, he had threatened to refuse both food and water, but after meeting with OSP Warden David Bobby, he reportedly agreed not to refuse water.
Harris is currently housed at USP Florence, the federal supermax prison in Colorado.
Sources: www.vindy.com, www.vytv.com, www.redbirdprisonabolition.org, http://corneliusharris.blogspot.com, http://sfbayview.com
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