This is a different type of case than the others I’ve posted about here. Usually, the cases I try to highlight are ones that have to do with finding justice for a victim of a violent crime, like a murder or kidnapping. The desire for justice in these cases is motivated by a sense of honor and respect: because what happened to this person is irreversible and has taken away their ability to defend themselves, it’s the responsibility of the public to see that some kind of action is taken. In this case, the case of Ricardo Harris, the desire for justice is motivated by a person’s current, continuing, and unnecessary suffering. This is a case with two victims: one who was at the center of a violent crime, and one who was wrongfully accused of committing it.
Both of the victims in this case, Yvonne James and Ricardo Harris, had aspects of their identities that hurt their chances of getting the justice they deserve. Yvonne James was a sex worker, and Ricardo Harris is deaf.
The justice system has totally failed Ricardo Harris and allowed law enforcement and criminal courts to take advantage of his disability to secure the conviction they wanted. Though many years too late, there is still a chance at getting Ricardo justice.
On January 1st, 2013, Ricardo “Rico” Harris was in Cobb County, Georgia, visiting friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve. After spending the night out, Rico went to a hotel nearby. He was walking down a hallway when he saw the door of one of the hotel rooms was open. Rico could see from the hallway that there was a woman on the floor of the hotel room who looked to be deceased.
Rico was horrified and shocked. But, he couldn’t scream, or call out for someone to help. Rico is deaf, and was raised in ASL, or American Sign Language. He didn’t speak English. He could not have called 911 on his cell phone, because he wouldn’t be able to hear the operator or tell them what had happened. He even tried to download AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) on his phone to attempt to connect to Sprint’s Relay Service, which would have allowed him to type out his message to an operator, who would read the text to the person on the other line and then type their response back to Rico. But even this failed, because his cell service wasn’t strong enough.
So, Rico left the scene to go find help. He hurried to the front desk of the hotel and wrote a note, which he then held up to the concierge. The note asked the concierge to call the police to report “a life or death matter”. For whatever reason, this concierge refused, despite Rico’s obvious signs of panic and distress.
Rico tried to get the attention of two other people at the hotel with his note, but both also refused to call. Still, Rico did not give up. In a last-ditch effort, Rico drove to the nearest gas station, where, thankfully, the cashier read his note and called the police.
While on the phone with police, the gas station cashier was told by officers to ask Rico to stay at the store until police arrived on the scene. Rico agreed.
When Cobb County Police arrived at the gas station, they asked Rico to accompany them back to the station in order to take his statements about what had happened. Rico again agreed, and showed full cooperation with police efforts. Before leaving for the station, Rico explained that he would need an interpreter who understood English and ASL in order to best give his statements. He requested that one be present when he was interviewed.
In a disgusting act of ableism and obstruction of justice, Rico’s request was not carried out by the Cobb County police. Instead, when Rico sat down to tell his story, he was joined by a woman who had no certification in interpretation at all. She was a former police officer from the exact same police department: Cobb County. She was not fluent or even trained in sign language, only finger spelling (a subset of ASL that is used by fluent signers only to sign names or words with no ASL sign).
Rico was interrogated for over 14 hours by police. The voluntary aspect of Rico being questioned changed when officers decided to officially view Rico as a suspect in the murder, rather than a witness. The “interpreter” he was provided ensured that Rico could not effectively communicate with officers, because he didn’t recognize the sign language she was using. He wrote several times on pieces of paper that he did not understand what the interpreter was saying, and that he could not talk to her. Still, an ASL-certified interpreter was never brought in.
Video footage from Rico’s interview make even clearer what a disgrace this process was. The video shows the translator is not accurately signing, and sometimes isn’t even keeping track of the conversation—she pauses and hesitates, and there are large gaps in between signs. There are some points where the interpreter is simply sitting and not signing AT ALL while police officers are speaking.
When police compared Rico’s written statement and the statement the interpreter had given for him, they didn’t match. This was to be expected, because they were using two different languages. This logic did not matter to Cobb County police, who arrested Rico on the charge of murdering the woman in the hotel, Yvonne James.
Rico’s trial only compounded the insane injustice and clear targeting he’d already been subjected to. His lawyer, the person whose job it was to literally and figuratively speak for him, failed to do his obligation to the law and to his client. During the trial, Rico’s lawyer never once raised any objection to Rico’s arrest proceedings, or the testimony given by police. He never mentioned the interpreter’s lack of certification, the fact that she used a different language than Rico did, or the fact that police never found any physical or DNA evidence to link Rico to the crime. He didn’t even bring up the fact that Rico had never met Yvonne James before, and that he had no motive or opportunity to kill her. Despite literally every piece of evidence pointing to the contrary, Rico Harris was convicted of first-degree murder, based only on the differences in statements between Rico and the translator. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The actions taken by Cobb County police are not only immoral but illegal. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all law enforcement and attorneys must make sure that ASL is available while working with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Rico was denied that right. His right as an American and a human to a fair trial and arrest proceedings were denied, by a team of all-white detectives, a white DA, and an all-white jury.
Rico has been wrongfully imprisoned for over eight years. Before he was arrested, he was a star student at Rochester Institute at Technology, studying Information Technology and belonging to the school’s ROTC program. His partner, Krystal Starks, and him have been together for over a decade. He has three daughters. He loves working with programs like Photoshop and InDesign, and has a talent for cooking that he learned from his mother, Wilma. He had a beautiful and blessed life that was taken from him for no reason other than racism and ableism.
Rico’s fight for justice continues. Currently, he and his partner Krystal are working to raise enough money to retain another attorney, this time to request a writ of habeas corpus, or a petition to file a civil charge against the state. If their request is granted, they’ll be able to defend Rico using new evidence that wasn’t brought up at his trial.
You can donate to Rico’s cause using the link below.