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Discussing your penis in court doesn't stay funny for long
On the morning of his 42nd birthday, Stephen Harrell was arrested outside a liquor store on Century Boulevard in Inglewood, handcuffed, and hauled off to face the screwiest charge ever leveled at him in his admittedly checkered career with the criminal justice system. He was accused of concealing four rocks of cocaine in his foreskin. To be more precise, he was accused of wrapping the rocks in individual clear plastic bags, placing them all in another black bag, shoving them halfway up his penis and then keeping them snugly in place for at least an hour between the time of his arrest and the time that three Inglewood cops strip-searched him. The whole package was variously described by the arresting officer as being "bigger than a marble" and having roughly the same diameter as a dime.
Let me point out to those of you unendowed with male genitalia that we are talking about an almost unfathomable world of pain here, not to mention physical elasticity of a truly extraordinary kind. (Those of you with male genitalia have probably crossed your legs already.) Nothing in Harrell's long resume as a petty criminal and drug user suggests he was ever in serious contention for the cast of Puppetry of the Penis. Or, as Harrell himself put it in one of his first interviews with his defense attorney: "I may be big, but I ain't no horse." So far, just a funny story. But it only gets more bizarre on closer examination. The arresting officer, Patrick Manning, claims he saw Harrell drop a crack pipe from his waistband as soon as he became aware of his patrol car. That, at least, was the pretext for the arrest. But Harrell didn't apparently think of dumping the cocaine assuming he ever had it in the first place. Officer Manning noticed nothing unusual about the way Harrell was walking, and once he had cuffed him and put him in the patrol car he didn't report any wriggling or gasps of pain.
The public defender eventually assigned to Harrell, Eleanor Schneir, had the bright idea of downloading some penis diagrams off the Internet and asked Officer Manning and the two colleagues he took with him into the strip-search room to show the trial jury where exactly the bulge had been. Curiously, each policeman put it in a different place. One said it was at the top, beneath the foreskin proper, while the other two put it further down and to the side. In one diagram the package was almost all the way to the base of the penis which makes one wonder just how endowed with male genitalia the police officers themselves can have been. Schneir had great fun buying up gourmet gumballs from her local grocery store and waving them at the jury, with a dime taped to the side for size-comparison purposes, just to emphasize the preposterousness of the allegation. She cited no less an authority than Seinfeld to question whether any penis could withstand the cold of the strip-search room without succumbing to the dreaded male problem of shrinkage, which would surely have shaken the incriminating package loose all by itself.
At a certain point, it seemed Harrell was home free, and Schneir was confident enough to berate the prosecution for subjecting him to an embarrassing public spectacle. As she told the jury: "He has to sit here and hear me, his lawyer, his advocate, a woman, argue to a jury of 12 strangers that his penis is too small for this to be possible what could possibly be more humiliating than that?" Things took an unexpected turn, however, as a batch of photographs of Harrell's genitalia was released to the court and appeared to show that he was circumcised. From Harrell's point of view, this might have looked like a pretty good defense how, after all, can anyone conceal drugs in their foreskin if they don't have one? In reality, though, the photographs unleashed a furor in the courtroom and changed the terms of the debate entirely. Suddenly, it was not the Inglewood PD whose honesty was under scrutiny but rather Harrell's, as the defendant was accused of yanking his foreskin back for the camera in an attempt to conceal it.
In the single most surreal sequence of the trial, Officer Manning bragged that he knew all about the flexibility of uncircumcised penises because he used to play baseball for the Atlanta Braves (he was a 1999 draft pick later sidelined by a knee injury) and frequently showered with players from Colombia and Central America who not only had foreskins but were frequently "silly" with them. Manning told the prosecutor he saw players pull down their foreskins and dance around for as long as 20 minutes. Schneir wasn't going to let this one go. "I'm a little confused," she said disingenuously. "I was always led to believe that men in showers go to great lengths not to look at each other's penises, and you're telling me you looked for 20 minutes?"
Members of the jury started guffawing. Manning said sheepishly that he hadn't exactly looked for 20 minutes. So Schneir asked him how long he had looked for 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes? Eventually, Manning said hed looked at one penis for one minute. Schneir deadpanned: "Okay, we're all dying to know: whose penis was it?" For all the courtroom humor, from here on out the trial started slipping out of the grasp of the defense. The deputy district attorney suggested the only way to resolve the circumcision question was to have Harrell re-examined by a medical professional. Harrell told the court he'd had quite enough people looking at his penis and refused. The judge, Deirdre Hill, then instructed the jury that they were free to interpret this refusal as a form of self-incrimination. Schneir tried valiantly to argue that the circumcision question made no difference to the plausibility of the police's story. But the damage was done, and the jury came back with a guilty verdict.
That, of course, is the way so many petty crime cases go. Given the choice between a defendant of dubious character and the testimony of uniformed police officers, juries will almost always side with the police. The Harrell case reflects many of the uglier aspects of law enforcement in Los Angeles: a poor, black, relatively harmless delinquent picked up, handcuffed and stripped by white officers, and lumbered with a serious felony charge for which he has just been sentenced to six years and six months behind bars. Without the allegation of cocaine in his penis, he would have been looking at a misdemeanor and a $100 fine. There is some evidence to suggest that Officer Manning, for one, finds escapades like the apprehension of Stephen Harrell to be a bit of a hoot. Interviewed by a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina newspaper when he first made the leap from baseball to policing, he said patrolling the streets of Inglewood was not entirely unlike competitive sports. "To me, it's almost like a game," he said. "Ive had a great time so far."
Judge Hill also appears to have taken Harrell less than seriously. At one point during the sentencing phase, when one of the fingerprints from his conviction record failed to match, she ruled that his priors should be disregarded and that he was therefore eligible for drug treatment under the terms of Proposition 36. When the court next convened, however, she simply reversed herself for reasons possibly connected to the fact that the district attorney's office was in a separate dispute with her and threatening to have her removed from felony cases and she ended up imposing the maximum sentence. "Shed already told my client she would release him," a frustrated Schneir said. "That seems to me cruel and unusual punishment on some level." Stephen Harrell is now stuck behind bars until 2010 at the earliest and it's far from clear who is better off for it.