Convicted killer of recent Drexel grad hangs self in Graterford cell

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A West Philadelphia handyman found guilty and sentenced to life in prison last month for the 2015 rape and murder of a recent Drexel University grad committed suicide last week in his cell at the state prison in Graterford.

Montgomery County First Deputy Coroner Alexander Balacki confirmed that James Harris, 58, hanged himself in his cell last Thursday.

In a statement, Graterford Superintendent Cynthia Link said Harris was found unresponsive in his cell about 10:40 p.m. last Thursday. Hes was transported to Einstein Montgomery Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:10.

On March 29, after a nonjury trial, Harris was found guilty of first-degree murder, rape, and other charges in the July 15, 2015, strangling of Jasmine Wright, 27.

The first-degree murder verdict carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, but Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Sandy L.V. Byrd added consecutive sentences totaling 30 to 60 years for the charges of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and burglary.

Harris had agreed to waive a jury trial if prosecutors dropped plans to seek the death penalty.

Wright had just earned a master’s degree in public health from Drexel and was planning on pursuing a law degree to become an advocate for public health services.

Though he was a high school dropout with a long criminal history, Harris stunned Wright’s family by testifying that he and Wright had a consensual sexual relationship.

That was Harris’ explanation for how his DNA was found inside Wright’s body. Harris said Wright was alive when he left her third-floor apartment at 226 N. 50th St., where he sometimes did maintenance work.

Harris maintained his innocence to the moment of sentencing.

Assistant District Attorney Gail Fairman called Harris a predator and said his “fictional sexual affair” was just another wound against Wright and her family.

At Harris’ sentencing, defense attorney Geoffrey Kilroy said Harris sustained multiple traumatic injuries including twice being shot in the head and shot in the left eye with an arrow when he was a child.

Kilroy said years of beatings by Harris’ father, James Washington, and watching his father abuse his mother led to his killing his father in 1982. Harris served about five years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

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