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Suspect admits guilt; now he needs a lawyer
By SUE CARLTON and KATHRYN WEXLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 2000
It was one of those courtroom moments when time seemed to stop, when people looked at one another in disbelief, shook their heads and said: Did that just happen?
Before Judge Chet Tharpe was Alfred Harris, a man accused in the 1987 rape of a 72-year-old woman and the murder of her husband. Last year Harris, who already was serving a lengthy term in prison in a separate case, was charged after DNA testing tied him to the rape and murder.
Now facing the death penalty, Harris had complained about the public defender's office and spoke of acting at trial as his own lawyer, known as going pro se. In court, the judge discussed the perils of a person charged with such a serious crime trying to represent himself and talked of appointing a private attorney for Harris.
Harris seemed amenable. Then he said the words that would make any defense lawyer wince.
"I know I'm charged with a serious offense and I'm not taking it lightly," he said. "By me going pro se, I would be a fool to be up here trying to represent myself knowing that I'm guilty."
Guilty. He said the word guilty. People in the courtroom gaped.
In the end, Harris was assigned to private attorney Brian Gonzalez. Prosecutor Jay Pruner, meanwhile, quickly ordered an official transcript of the hearing. "We anticipate using it," Pruner said.
AND THEY CALL IT THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY? Typical: Cops are called to a crime scene and ask the victim to answer questions or provide information that may lead to an arrest.
Also typical: The answer is make me.
That is, when the victim is a business. It happened just a few weeks ago at the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel. A guest reported $16,700 worth of jewelry missing from her purse.
According to the police report, ". . . hotel management will not cooperate with police in ID'ing the suspect(s)."
Businesses fear they're violating privacy laws if they release information about employees to other businesses seeking references. That fear transfers to police, even during criminal investigations.
"It's a pain in the butt for us," said plain-spoken Tampa Sgt. Rick Diaz. Officers then have to head to the downtown state attorney's office and get a court order for access. Generally, those are easily won, but it slows the investigation and sometimes the information cops need is annoyingly simple, like who's renting a particular apartment, Diaz said.
"Foolhardy," is how Tampa labor attorney John-Edward Alley describes this close-lipped approach. "They've been scared to death by labor lawyers who don't know anything about defamation law or the First Amendment."
The Wyndham case is dragging on. Police say the hotel suspects two employees and that one wrote a letter confessing, but other than that, they're being kept in the dark.
"We apparently need subpoenaes for everything beyond these people's first and last names," Officer Mike Leavy said. (The Wyndham says it is fully cooperating.)
The good news in this muddle is that the hotel guest, visiting from Naples, got her jewelry back after it suddenly turned up at the hotel the day after the theft.
But even then, Leavy said, he had to threaten hotel employees with arrest, because they refused at first to hand over the jewelry as evidence.
"I was pretty amazed myself," Leavy said.
Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or email@example.com. Sue Carlton can be reached at (813) 226-3346 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.