When Charles Harper pleaded guilty to stalking his former foster dad, Broward Circuit Judge John Bowman, he gave up any chance of appeal and received a permanent mark on his adult criminal record. As part of a plea deal reached with the state, Harper has to apologize publicly to Bowman. He also has to complete a year of probation and a six-month "batterer's intervention course."
Judge Ian Richards repeatedly offered Harper the chance to reconsider his acceptance of the plea deal. "I don't know how many more times I can give you to step back," said Richards to Harper at one point. Harper's lawyer, Bill Direnzo, also asked him multiple times whether he was sure of his decision.
Why did Harper go ahead with the plea? He wanted to get out of jail, he says. But the state also warned him that it could increase the charges if he chose to go to trial.
The state announced the stalking charges in open court on the morning that Harper pleaded -- up until that hearing, no counts against Harper had been officially filed. That's partially because a Miami-Dade judge originally found no probable cause from the police report from Harper's December arrest. Direnzo, who had been out of town, had not seen a new document alleging probable cause.
The prosecutor had briefly shown him a new addendum document describing previous alleged offenses by Harper against Judge Bowman.
"The only thing I have is... they faxed me over one police report," Direnzo told the judge. "[The prosecutor] showed me... an addendum... but I haven't seen the document that showed there was [probable cause]. I told [Harper] I could work on arguments for all of this stuff, but he said, 'Don't do it.'"
That addendum document didn't just mean that the state was willing to prosecute Harper for the one stalking incident. Prosecutor Sarah Murphy said that if Harper didn't take the plea, the charges against him might be increased to the felony level based on records of prior altercations between him and Bowman.
"There is additional evidence that the state has in its possession about conduct that occurred prior to [this incident]. We were willing to offer a plea to this misdemeanor, rather than... expand that period of time in the information and potentially pursue an aggravated stalking felony."
Harper appeared to consider going to trial if he could be released from pretrial detention. "We are strenuously objecting to release," responded Murphy. She said that if he continued "feeling out the court for release," the plea offer would be "off the table."
After he pleaded, Harper publicly apologized to John and Claudette Bowman as required by the plea deal. "I'm sorry for stalking John and Claudette Bowman, and you'll never see me again except to take me off of probation," he said on the record.
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Harper asked the judge for the document listing previous accusations against him, which was to form the basis of an expanded charge against him if he didn't plead. Judge Richards agreed to give him access to the document.
If the case had gone to trial, Richards would have recused himself because of his professional relation to Bowman, and Harper would likely have been in jail for at least another week while a new judge was brought in from Miami-Dade or Palm Beach counties.
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