BREAKING NEWS: Jurors in Hackensack this afternoon acquitted VH1 “Love & Hip Hop” star Mendeecees Harris of sexually assaulting a teenager by coercing her with money and other manipulation in his Lodi home when she was 15.
Fellow “Love & Hip Hop” star Yandy Smith was among those in the courtroom who leapt to their feet and stomped, clapped, shouted and sobbed, raising arms skyward, as the verdicts to the eight individual charges were read just before 4 p.m.
“I love you!” one of them shouted to the jurors, who returned the verdicts after a few hours of deliberations.
Sheriff’s officers then asked them to return to order.
When they wouldn’t, Presiding Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebbi directed the officer to escort the group out of her courtroom.
No matter how much they tried to rip you of your pride, defame your name, degrade you…you kept your faith in God and told me to keep my head up. So I did,” Smith posted a short time later on Instagram. “Not Guilty!
“I say it again NOT GUILTY!!!!”
Tweets were also flying across her Twitter account.
“The reality of celebrity life is, unfortunately, you sometimes walk around with a target on your back,” defense attorney Emil Lisboa told CLIFFVIEW PILOT. “You don’t know if your friends are your friends or are just trying to get something out of you.”
Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Demetra Maurice, in turn, said: “I respect the jury’s decision and the time and attention they gave this case.”
The alleged victim’s grandmother and aunt left as the verdicts were being read.
“It’s in God hands,” the grandmother, who is a pastor, told CLIFFVIEW PILOT. “The truth will come out.”
She was among those who remained, despite the weather, as the day wore on. She prayed at times, as did Smith, who wept as she and several people who accompanied her throughout the trial huddled together.
Harris’s troubles are far from over. Instead of going free, he was returned to the Bergen County Jail, where federal marshals have been holding him on a detainer.
He’d been free on bail pending the start of the trial, but he surrendered here last week after being named in a federal indictment out of Rochester, N.Y. that accuses him and two other men with trafficking $2.5 million worth of heroin and cocaine.
The government is expected to bring that case against him now. Arrangements are expected to be made to extradite him to New York early next week.
Harris, who’s been characterized in unconfirmed media accounts as a former police informant, already has a drug conviction on his record that led to federal prison time and probation following a 2001 arrest.
Jurors began deliberating this morning at 11:30 after being charged by the judge. They returned to the courtroom at 1:45 to review revised verdict sheets and began deliberating again at 2 o’clock.
At 3 p.m., the jurors returned to the courtroom. DeAvila-Silebi told them the Bergen County Courthouse was closing because of the snowstorm and that they could return Monday to continue deliberations.
However, the jurors asked to remain. Less than an hour later, they returned the verdicts.
Harris insisted during testimony yesterday that he “never had a relationship” with the woman, who is now 19 and testified herself in the trial, which began Tuesday.
“That’s the truth – never, never – I never committed none of them acts to that girl in my life,” he told jurors.
Harris insisted that he was living in Lodi with the victim, her mother and their three boys at the time in order to protect his $50,000 down payment on the house after discovering his name wasn’t on the deed.
“I told her we need to either sell the house or you need to give me my down payment out,” Harris said. “My stuff was in boxes in the hallway for months.”
At that point, he said, he and the woman were just friends – including when she leased an apartment on Prospect Street in Hackensack and gave him a key in order to help him out.
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The woman, now 19, testified this week that Harris told her she was “better than [her] mother” after coercing her into oral sex by revealing his knowledge of a dark secret from her past. “He told me he knew I had been raped when I was 8 years old,” she said, “and he found out from my mother.
“ ‘Your mom doesn’t want you here’,” the woman said Harris told her before exposing himself.
She said she complied with his desire out of spite “to get back at my mom.”
“I felt betrayed by her,” she testified on Tuesday. “I didn’t tell her about it until I was 14, and it was something I didn’t want anyone to know.”
That began a series of oral sexual favors in exchange for money, she said.
Harris was charged with seven counts of child abuse and with promoting prostitution. If convicted, he would have faced up to 20 years in prison.
Maurice, the prosecutor in the case, accused Harris of manipulating the alleged victim using money and mind games.
“We call it taking candy from a baby,” she said during opening arguments Tuesday.
Harris and his girlfriend were living in Lodi with her two pre-teen boys and a baby son of his from another woman when the woman moved up from North Carolina in the summer of 2009.
Some of the incidents occurred while she was still 15, the teen said, and others after her 16th birthday, when Harris was more than four years older – the standard in New Jersey for statutory rape.
During cross-examination, defense attorney Brian Neary pressed the woman about her statements to detectives, her grand jury testimony and the times she claimed that Harris coerced her into sex – pointing out inconsistencies in where and when she said the incidents allegedly occurred.
The defense attorney also challenged her decision not to return South to her father’s home, as well as her failure to disclose what she said happened to “your counselor, your minister grandmother.”
Neary emphasized that Harris took the stand voluntarily and pleaded “not guilty wrapped in the presumption of innocence.”
“He took the witness stand to speak the truth, to look you in the eye,” the defense attorney told the jury during his closing argument yesterday.
“I told him: Don’t worry, Mendeecees,” Neary said. “This is a jury that comes not just from one section of Bergen County, not just from one experience.
“The beauty of a jury is you just don’t look at someone through the view of one simple perspective. It’s the collection of your perspective.”
Neary emphasized the fact that the woman couldn’t remember dates or specific incidents, part of what he called “contradiction upon contradiction” and “inconsistencies.”
Their Lodi home didn’t have locks, he said, and the woman’s brothers were around, running in and out of the house — making the sexual encounters she described implausible.
Neary also took issue with Maurice’s attempt to untangle Harris’ relationships with three different women.
“How dare the prosecutor suggest that because he had a different lifestyle – that because he had different girlfriends – sometimes at the same time?” he asked. “And that he’s a reality TV star who gets $4,000 an episode… How dare she?
“Not one question contradicted his belief, his strong feeling, and the truth that he had nothing to do with this girl, nothing to do with these sexual allegations,” Neary said. “He broke down and said, ‘I didn’t do this,’ on the verge of tears.”
STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia (PROPERTY OF CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM / NO RE-USE WITHOUT PERMISSION)
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