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Ohio: Hunger Striker Represents Himself, Beats Attempted Murder Charges

An Ohio supermax prisoner, representing himself while on a month-long hunger strike, won his acquittal in February of attempted murder charges stemming from fights with prison guards.

Cornelius Harris, a 27-year-old prisoner serving a 97-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping charges at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) in Youngstown, argued to a jury in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court that ongoing "inhumane" treatment from 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," Harris said in his opening arguments on Jan. 24, 2013. "But the way I have been treated by guards has crossed the line to inhumane."

After firing his former attorney, Mark Lavelle, who sat in the 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 local newspaper.

In describing to the jury surveillance video from 2009 and 2010 that showed him fighting with guards and allegedly pushing another guard down a flight of stairs, Harris admitted that the videos showed him "acting out," but argued that guards instigated the violence.

Harris told jurors that, to escape 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 to Harris, however, that video was never doctored for any reason.

Before closing arguments and jury deliberations began, Harris' trial was suspended when he was transferred from OSP to Franklin Medical Center in Columbus because of his deteriorating health. Harris began the hunger strike to protest prison security-review policies and harassment by guards.

Harris, who's been in prison since 2007, has been incarcerated as a maximum-security, Level-5 prisoner in solitary confinement since the fights that prompted the attempted murder and assault charges. But according to Harris, he hasn't had an incident report in three years.

On Level 5, Harris is confined to his cell for 23 hours a day. His access to visitors, commissary and programming is restricted, if not entirely prohibited under some circumstances.

While refusing to eat, Harris demanded a chance to "step-down" or reduce his security level, more security reviews, recreation time with other prisoners, contact visits, and more time out of his cell.

By the time Judge Maureen Sweeney reconvened Harris' trial on Feb. 5–against doctors' recommendations–he had reportedly lost 50 pounds and was experiencing sharp pains in his legs. Doctors had also warned him that continuing to refuse food would soon result in organ failure.

On Feb. 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 found guilty on three counts of possession of a dangerous weapon while in detention.

According to RedBird Prison Abolition, a website that posted earlier statements Harris had made about abuse by prison guards, Harris had not given up his hunger strike by the evening after his trial ended.


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