Trial begins in 2015 rape and murder of Drexel grad student

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For a week, James E. Harris had been gone from the West Philadelphia block where for several years he was known as Jimmy Camp, the talkative neighborhood handyman.

Then, on July 15, 2015, Jimmy was back, seen by two neighbors late that afternoon on the front porch of 226 N. 50th St., a three-unit apartment building where he did maintenance work.

This time, testified nurse Tanya Giebus, Harris was different. When she spotted him on the porch and called out his name, Giebus said, Harris didn’t say anything.

“He gave me sort of a half-wave and then stepped back behind a pillar supporting the porch roof, Giebus said.

The next day, neighbors learned a possible reason for Harris’ sudden reticence: the beaten, strangled and sexually assaulted body of Jasmine Wright, 27, who had just completed a graduate degree in public health at Drexel University.

On Monday, Assistant District Attorney Gail Fairman began to present evidence in the non-jury trial of Harris, 58, before Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Sandy L.V. Byrd.

Harris agreed to waive his right to a jury trial in exchange for the District Attorney’s Office not pursuing a death sentence if he is found guilty of first-degree murder. Without the death penalty, first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Before the start of testimony, Harris confirmed that he also rejected a last-minute offer by prosecutors to plead guilty to third-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of 50 to 100 years in prison.

Harris is charged with murder, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and burglary in Wright’s slaying.

Harris’ lawyers – Thurgood M. Matthews, Geoffrey Kilroy, and Stephanie Fennell – did not make an opening statement outlining their defense, although in the past they have suggested the case against Harris was based mostly on circumstantial evidence.

At the time of Harris’ preliminary hearing, his lawyers also said he and Wright might have had consensual sex and she was killed by a later intruder. Fairman has said Harris’ DNA was found in sperm inside Wright’s body and on a towel and pillow found inside her third-floor apartment.

Wright’s body was found July 16, 2015, after her parents asked Realty World, the management company for property owner Harold Murray, to check on her. Wright’s mother said she was on the phone with her daughter in the late afternoon of July 15 when she heard a noise and the line went dead.

Murray testified Monday that he hired Harris about nine months before the killing to clean up the property for $20 a week.

“Jimmy Camp, he came highly recommended by a neighbor,” said Murray. And for nine months, “he did very good work, I must say,” Murray added.

But then Harris stopped working and Murray said he fired him a week before the killing. He said Harris still had keys to the property and promised to return them, “but before I knew it, this thing happened.”

Another neighbor, Wanda McCoy, testified that she saw Harris entering the door that led upstairs to the second- and third-floor apartments on the afternoon of July 15, 2015.

Harris has a series of criminal convictions and served about five years in prison for voluntary manslaughter in the 1982 slaying of his father in what Harris’ family said was the culmination of years of abuse.

After Wright’s slaying, her parents filed suit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court against Realty World, Murray, and Harris, contending no one did a background check before hiring Harris. The suit is pending.

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