James Harris told a jury at his federal civil trial Monday that a Philadelphia police officer forced him to perform oral sex on him in his police cruiser in Fairmount Park in 2007.
Harris told jurors that the incident still traumatizes him: "I wake up in the middle of the night, gagging," as if he were reliving a nightmare. "I just don't know who I am ... I feel weird," he said, explaining how he lived "like a hermit" and wanted to "kill himself" in the months and years following his encounter with the cop, Michael Paige.
Harris, 34, of North Philadelphia, filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Paige in May 2008. In 2007, Paige was fired and charged with assault, indecent sexual contact and related offenses. After a bench trial, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge acquitted Paige of the charges, concluding that there was oral sex between Paige and Harris, but that it was consensual.
Following the acquittal, the Fraternal Order of Police filed a grievance on Paige's behalf, and an arbitrator overturned his dismissal and reduced it to a 30-day suspension. He is today patrolling the streets of West Philadelphia.
Harris, who has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia since the incident, testified Monday that during the early-morning hours of March 16, 2007, he and a friend went to Belmont Plateau, where they parked and smoked marijuana. About 2 a.m., Paige pulled up next to them, and, Harris said, the officer told him to get out of his car and sit in the front passenger seat of his cruiser while he looked over Harris' vehicle papers. As Harris recalled it, Paige didn't seem concerned about the paperwork. "How long have y'all been together?" Harris said Paige asked him, referring to his friend. Harris testified that Paige told him to take his friend home, saying that he had 20 minutes to return to the park. "Don't tell your friend you're coming back here," Harris testified that Paige told him.
The officer kept Harris' vehicle paperwork, Harris testified. "I figured he was just trying to punish me," he told the jury.
After Harris returned, he said, Paige directed him to get back in the front seat of the cruiser, and the two then drove past a gate into a secluded area of the park.
"What happened next?" asked Harris' attorney, Brian F. Humble. Harris said that Paige pulled down his pants and underwear.
He said that Paige then "put his fingers on the back of my head and twisted my head," adding, "I just did it … I gave him oral sex." Harris said that Paige then drove him back to another area of the park and released him. While driving home, he said, he grabbed a Styrofoam cup and spit into it. DNA tests subsequently linked the cup's contents to Paige.
Paige's version of what happened was starkly different. He said that after Harris returned from taking his friend home, Harris got in the passenger side of his cruiser and they "drove around Fairmount Park" while Paige shared his "mentoring experiences" with Harris.
"He asked questions about my job," Paige testified, adding that he showed Harris places in the park where he had had sexual liaisons with women in the past. The liaisons always occurred in his personal vehicle, Paige said, adding that the two men exchanged cellphone numbers. Paige said that he may have called him a day or two later but didn't leave a message.
"But you say you never had a sexual encounter with my client?" Humble asked.
"That's correct," Paige replied.
Paige's attorney, Brian Puricelli, tried to suggest that Harris' testimony wasn't believable and that he was the lawbreaker. "You were in the park after hours, you were smoking marijuana and you didn't have a driver's license," Puricelli said.
"You didn't tell [your friend] you were scared of Paige? He never pulled a gun on you?" Purcicelli asked. "No," Harris replied, adding, "once he pulled his pants down, he didn't have to say or do anything else."
Contact Michael Hinkelman at 215-854-2656 or [email protected] or follow on Twitter @MHinkelman.
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