Tuesday, May 25, 2005
Harris Says He Made Mistakes, Defends Intentions
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Harris, testifying yesterday on the first day of his misconduct hearing, admitted that he had improper discussions with a pair of sexual assault victims after trying their cases, but said he did so with the best of intentions.
Harris denied that he sought to establish a close personal or romantic relationship with either woman, and said anyone who construed his remarks in that manner is mistaken.
The judge also explained that he has been in sensitivity training for the past 11 weeks, and has come to realize that innocent suggestions may be misconstrued by those over whom a judge has authority.
The hearing, at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals courthouse in Pasadena, is taking place before three judges named by the state Supreme Court to hear evidence on charges brought against Harris by the Commission on Judicial Performance.
The CJP has accused Harris of seeking to establish personal relationships with the two assault victims—one of them just a teenager—making inappropriately personal comments to jurors, attorneys, and court staff, throwing a file at a deputy city attorney, and lying during an investigation into his conduct.
Harris said he was trying “to offer support, to offer strength, to offer compassion” to the 16-year-old girl when he invited her to join him in his chambers after he sentenced her uncle to 16 years in prison for having continuously abused her between the ages of six and 12. The prosecutor was invited in as well, but did not come in, the judge said.
Harris, who said he extended the invitation because he was moved by the girl’s victim impact statement, said he told her she was brave to testify and that the jury must have believed her. When she responded that what saddened her most was that she had “lost” her grandparents—who wanted nothing to do with her after she testified against their son—Harris said he “offered to be her grandfather.”.
It was, the judge explained, “a gratuitous statement” made “in a kindly sort of way.” He certainly had no intent of replacing her grandparents or making her part of his family, he explained, although he did give her his business card and offered to write a letter of recommendation when the time came for her to apply to colleges.
With the benefit of hindsight, Harris testified, he realizes that he should not have had an ex parte contact with a victim, especially since the case was not final. At the time, he explained, he considered the case closed because sentence had been imposed and post-trial motions denied.
The case went up on appeal, and the Court of Appeal cited Harris’ conversation with the victim as grounds for reversing the sentence, although not the conviction. The case was sent to another judge, who imposed the same sentence.
In the second case, Harris said he was similarly affected by the victim impact statement given by a Century City entertainment lawyer who had fallen prey to a home-invasion rapist and invited her into chambers. When she mentioned that she was half-Jewish—Harris has long been active in a Hollywood-area synagogue—the judge said he invited her to have Friday night dinner with him and his wife.
It is customary for Jews to invite guests for dinner on Fridays, to observe the beginning of the Sabbath, Harris explained.
The woman responded favorably to the suggestion, Harris said, but his wife was not feeling well at the time and when he spoke to the woman a couple of weeks later he asked if she would like to go to a restaurant instead. When she suggested a place near her home, the judge said, he agreed and said “it’s a date.”
The woman later decided she did not want to meet with him, the judge said. Harris insisted the “date” reference was social, not romantic, and that his wife of 34 Ω years, who was in the courtroom all day yesterday, was aware of what he was doing.
At the time, he said, he didn’t realize that a rape victim might “misunderstand or overreact” when a man offered an opportunity for a one-on-one social engagement.
With regard to another incident, Harris admitted that he had touched the cheeks of a female court administrator during a temporary assignment to the Central Arraignment Court, but suggested the commission has blown the incident out of proportion.
The administrator had greeted Harris, noted that she had met him when she was a new clerk and he a court commissioner 22 years earlier, and apologized for wearing exercise attire, the judge explained. Harris said he told her “you look good to me,” and touched her lightly with both hands.
Harris emphatically denied that he was staring at her anatomy or intended any sexual connotation in the greeting. “I didn’t think a momentary, instantaneous touching as a greeting was inappropriate,” he told the panel.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company