Jury awards $165K in police sex assault case

    A federal jury this week awarded $165,000 in damages to James Harris, a North Philadelphia man who says a city police officer repeatedly forced him to perform oral sex while on duty in a secluded area of Fairmount Park five years ago.

    The jury ruled that Officer Michael Paige violated Harris’ constitutional right to bodily integrity, and his constitutional right to not be subjected to unlawful seizure of his person.

    Additionally, the jury ruled that Paige’s conduct caused Harris to suffer severe emotional distress.

    Harris was awarded $65,000 in compensatory damages, and $100,000 in punitive damages.

    Jurors deliberated about four hours before handing down their verdict.

    Brian F. Humble, an attorney for Harris, expressed mixed feelings about the verdict.

    “Eight people upheld the constitution, and vindicated my client,” Humble told PGN. “It’s a strong message, but the dollar amount doesn’t reflect the severity of the harm my client suffered due to the egregious acts of Officer Paige.”

    Harris said the case was never about money. “Money was never an issue with me,” he said. “My initiative was entirely to bring Paige to justice.”

    Brian M. Puricelli, an attorney for Paige, declined to comment about the verdict.

    Sharply different portraits of a Philadelphia police officer accused of sexual assault emerged in a federal courtroom this week.

    Officer Michael Paige allegedly forced James Harris to perform oral sex on him while on duty in a secluded area of Fairmount Park five years ago.

    Harris, 34, contends he was socializing with a friend inside his stepmother’s car at Belmont Plateau when Paige ordered him out, seized his personal papers — and then told Harris to take his friend home and return for his papers.

    Harris followed the officer’s instructions. When Harris returned to the park, Paige gave him his papers.

    But he also allegedly drove Harris to a secluded area for oral sex, then to a more isolated area for anal sex.

    “[Paige] slid his hands into my pants,” Harris testified.

    When Harris resisted the anal sex, Paige allegedly settled for more oral sex until he ejaculated into Harris’ mouth.

    “I’m not mistaken about what happened to me,” Harris told jurors.

    Officer’s version of events

    But Paige painted a very different picture of what transpired during those pre-dawn hours of March 16, 2007.

    He said Harris was in the park past curfew, naked from the waist down, sitting on the lap of another male inside his stepmother’s car.

    Additionally, Harris had a suspended driver’s license.

    Paige said Harris told him that an uncle molested him as a child — causing him to occasionally act out sexually with other men, even though he was in a “long-distance” relationship with a woman.

    Feeling sympathy for Harris, Paige decided to send him home with a verbal warning.

    “I cut him a break,” Paige testified.

    Paige said he never held any papers of Harris to induce him to return to the park.

    A short time later, Paige said, Harris returned to the park of his own volition to thank Paige for being so nice, and he allowed him to enter his police vehicle.

    “The whole session could be considered mentoring,” Paige testified.

    They talked about Paige’s job, hobbies such as weight-lifting and the importance of male-female relationships.

    “I tried to build a friendship,” Paige testified.

    They also drove around the park, while Paige pointed out spots where he disposed of condoms after having consensual sex with women while off-duty, Paige testified.

    But the show-and-tell came back to haunt him, Paige said, when several weeks later Harris gave investigators a Styrofoam cup containing Paige’s semen commingled with Harris’ saliva.

    Harris told investigators he’d been drinking iced tea out of the cup prior to giving oral sex to Paige.

    Harris said when he returned to his stepmother’s car after the act, he spit into the cup to get rid of the foul taste in his mouth.

    Paige’s theory of the evidence

    Paige contends Harris obtained his semen by going back to the park and locating one of his used condoms. Harris then deposited some of Paige’s semen from the condom into the Styrofoam cup.

    “At some point in time, [Harris] must have grabbed one of my condoms and procured it for purposes of a civil lawsuit,” Paige said.

    The officer insisted he never had sex with Harris — consensual or otherwise.

    To the contrary, Paige testified he tried to help Harris overcome his sexual confusion by sharing stories of his own exploits with women.

    Outside the courtroom, Harris denied searching for a used condom, then depositing its contents into the cup. He also denied acting out sexually with men. “I’m 100-percent heterosexual,” he said.

    Additionally, Harris denied that he was partially clothed inside his grandmother’s car, and that he was sitting on his friend’s lap when Paige arrived.

    Harris also said he never told Paige that an uncle molested him.

    “First of all, I was never molested by an uncle,” Harris said. “And I wouldn’t say something like that to a person whose name I didn’t even know.”

    Defense rebuts Harris

    Harris testified that the alleged sexual assault caused him to seek counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

    “I’ve been treated for being sad, depressed and hurt — feelings of that nature,” Harris testified.

    But defense attorney Puricelli questioned the extent of Harris’ emotional distress, noting that he couldn’t specify any limitation on his ability to have fun in life.

    Puricelli also said Harris was exploiting his encounter with Paige for financial gain.

    “The evidence suggests that the plaintiff is just looking for a cash cow,” Puricelli told jurors.

    Over the years, Harris has given conflicting versions of the incident, Puricelli said.

    “He tells a different story to different people,” the attorney told jurors.

    But Harris’ attorney refuted that point.

    “Any discrepancies in my client’s testimony are trivial facts, compared to the outlandish, absurd explanation by Officer Paige as to how his semen was commingled with my client’s saliva in that cup,” Humble said.

    Police officials testify

    Benjamin S. Levin, a forensic scientist for the Philadelphia Police Department, indicated in his testimony that DNA testing conclusively linked the semen inside the Styrofoam cup to Paige.

    Statistically speaking, an investigator would have to search the DNA of about 3.9 quintillion African-American males to find a similar DNA match, Levin said.

    Levin acknowledged that he couldn’t say how the semen got into the cup.

    Lt. Kevin Long of the Philadelphia Police Internal Affairs Division also gave testimony indicating that it was Paige’s semen in the cup.

    Puricelli emphasized to jurors that neither witness could definitively state that Paige and Harris had sex.

    “You’re being presented with scientific evidence that really doesn’t answer the question [of whether sex occurred],” Puricelli told jurors.

    Paige still a police officer

    Paige, 45, remains employed by the Philadelphia Police Department, patrolling the streets of West Philadelphia.

    He was dismissed from the police force shortly after the incident. But in 2008, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Anthony J. DeFino dismissed all criminal charges against Paige after publicly questioning the credibility of Harris.

    Later, an independent arbitrator reduced Paige’s discipline from dismissal to a 30-day suspension — clearing the way for Paige’s return to the police force in April 2009.

    His annual salary is $62,519, according to city personnel records.

    Humble, the attorney for Harris, urged jurors to send a message to city officials by awarding substantial monetary damages to Harris.

    “Stop police officers like Paige from preying on citizens,” Humble told jurors.

    The City of Philadelphia isn’t a defendant in the case, and it remains unclear if the city will be ordered to indemnify Paige. Attorneys for Harris say they want Paige and/or the city to pay their legal fees, which total about $400,000.

    Prior to the trial, U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelly excluded any evidence about Harris’ prior criminal record, which consists of drug and traffic violations.

    The judge also excluded information about Paige’s exoneration in criminal court, and the arbitrator’s conclusion to reinstate Paige to the police force.