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Louisiana Jail Prisoner Pleads Guilty Just Before Jury Acquits

On April 2, 2014, Terrell Harris, a prisoner at the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans, Louisiana, pleaded guilty to a felony obscenity charge for masturbating in a cell minutes before a jury returned an acquittal on the charge. He received a ten-year prison sentence in a plea bargain that included obscenity and other charges.

Harris, 20, was charged with masturbating in a "direct observation" cell next to his cell on a special protective custody tier in the Templeman V jail building. Deputy Jena Terrace observed Harris on a video screen in a glassed-in observation booth then turned and saw him through tinted glass facing her while masturbating. Because the loudspeaker did not work, Terrace said she opened and closed the cell door to warn him to stop, but he did not.

During trial, John Fuller, an attorney who represented Harris, argued to the jury that Harris ducked into the observation cell for privacy, not to expose himself. He noted that the jail was known for violence.

"Man, they've got fighting, killing and stabbing, all this going on" shouted Fuller. "And this boy's on trial for masturbating alone in a cell with a closed door. That's crazy!

"You see him masturbating through a camera, and that's obscenity? That just blows my mind," bellowed Fuller. "That's [him] having a little bit of responsibility in jail and going into a cell by [himself] behind a closed door." The jury must have agreed.

"They didn't tell us enough. They couldn’t prove to us this young man was not just relieving himself," said jury forewoman Kaki Kohnke, saying the jury wondered. "Why did this come to trial? And a felony?"

Kohnke noted that the prosecutors failed to provide a photo or diagram of the observation booth; tier and cells that might have helped the jury understand the case better.

Because of a prior drug conviction, Harris faced up to six years on the obscenity charge alone. He was also being held on three counts of perjury for lying to a grand jury when he—an alleged member of the Mid-City Killers—testified that he did not witness a gang murder, obstruction of justice, illegal firearms possession and another obscenity charge related to in-jail masturbation. The prosecutors dropped the second obscenity charge and agreed to a ten-year sentence for all of the other charges while the jury was deliberating on the first obscenity charge. The judge then sentenced Harris to ten years in prison.

Fuller maintains it was a "sweet deal" as Harris could have been sentenced to forty years in prison if convicted on the other charges. Harris had already spent 33 months in jail awaiting trial.


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