James Harris: Former Belle Glade pastor sentenced to 30 years for sex crimes

Once a respected Belle Glade pastor and civic leader, James Harris may spend the rest of his life in a jail cell.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John S. Kastrenakes on Tuesday said he sentenced Harris, 65, to 30 years in prison for his convictions on six felony sex crimes.

Last week's sentencing brings closure to the case of a predator whose "insatiable desire for teenage boys" threatened the community for at least a decade, say prosecutors who had urged the maximum sentence of 80 years.

"He was a reverend, a politician, and a supporter of teenage boys having the dream to play professional football," Assistant State Attorney Chrichet B. Mixon wrote in a memo to the court before Friday's hearing. "However, Harris' most suitable title is that of a master manipulator."

The prosecution involved Harris' encounters with a 15-year-old boy in 2008 and 2009. He lured the victim, an athlete, with claims of professional contacts such as trainers who could help the boy achieve his dreams of playing in the National Football League.

During the trial in August, the victim testified that Harris performed sex acts on him on two occasions, and took videos. The jury watched two videos: one showed the boy masturbating under Harris' direction as a porn movie played in the background; the other showed the boy having sex with his girlfriend, 14, who did not initially realize Harris was recording them.

Defense attorney Christopher Haddad argued there was a lack of evidence of Harris' crimes, aside from the victim's testimony and deposition, which he called contradictory.

But a jury convicted Harris on all charges: lewd or lascivious battery; unlawful sexual activity with a minor; lewd or lascivious conduct; two counts of promoting sexual performance by a child; and showing obscene material to a minor.

In urging a prison term closer to the 17-year minimum, Haddad said Harris "tried to use his life as a positive force for change and to improve the lives of those around him."

Harris emerged from a childhood of poverty in Belle Glade, achieved higher education, assumed leadership of a ministry, and became outspoken "against segregation, discrimination and economic inequality," Haddad wrote in a memo to the judge.

"Although charges involving sexual conduct are very serious, Mr. Harris should not be judged solely upon the misdeeds of this case but by the entirety of his life experience," Haddad wrote.

Before the sentencing, psychologist William Weitz told the court that Harris suffered early on from a difficult upbringing, and more recently from medical conditions that caused pain and emotional distress.

Harris — who did not speak at the hearing — was placed on a suicide watch at the jail because of his actions in court after the jury verdict was announced.

After he was observed trying to swallow several white pills, Harris was subdued by deputies and carted off on a stretcher. But the pills were just antacid tablets and Harris was not trying to poison himself, Haddad said Tuesday.