Feds ask for relatively light 15-year prison term for ‘Cheer’ star Jerry Harris in child abuse case

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Citing former “Cheer” star Jerry Harris’ own traumatic childhood, prosecutors have asked a federal judge to sentence him to a relatively lenient 15 years in prison for coercing teenage boys to send him obscene photos and videos of themselves and soliciting sex from minors at cheerleading competitions.

Harris’ attorneys, meanwhile, have asked for a sentence of just six years in prison.

Harris, 22, of Naperville, pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count each of receiving child pornography and traveling with the intention to engage in illegal sexual conduct. He is scheduled to be sentenced July 6 by U.S. District Judge Manish Shah.

Sentencing guidelines call for up to about 50 years in prison for Harris. But in a sentencing filing late Wednesday, prosecutors asked for 15 years behind bars plus 10 years of court supervision, saying that while Harris’ crimes were horrific, the turbulent childhood he endured was among significant mitigating factors.

“Like many child predators, Harris took advantage of a power imbalance to sexually exploit his young victims,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Guzman wrote in the 27-page filing. “He preyed on the insecurity and youth of boys in the cheerleading community to abuse them.”

But Guzman said that at the time he committed the crimes, Harris was far less mature than most people his age, largely due to a childhood “full of setbacks and developmental delays” that included periods of poverty and homelessness.

Harris’ attorney, Joshua Herman, said that Harris was himself a victim of physical sexual assault, having been raped when he was only 13 years old by an older boy whom he knew from his cheerleading gym. Two years later, Harris was again sexually assaulted by a cabdriver who was taking him home to visit his ailing mother, according to Herman.

“These experiences warped Jeremiah’s view of ‘normal’ relationships, especially given how they occurred alongside social media and within the ecosystem of the Cheer community,” Herman wrote in a 55-page memo also filed late Wednesday.

Herman said that the “Cheer” community, while it offered Harris fame and a chance to escape his past, also “fostered, encouraged, and often required” situations “where inappropriate relationships often became unspoken realities.”

“Those relationships included rampant ‘sexting’ and sharing of nude images and videos via social media, which is more common amongst teenagers than we may want to acknowledge,” Herman wrote.

According to his plea agreement, Harris knowingly received and attempted to receive child pornography around August 2020 in Naperville. During that summer, Harris began talking to a 17-year-old boy and asked the minor to “take sexually explicit photographs and videos” of himself to send to Harris in exchange for about $2,000.

Around May 2019, Harris traveled from Texas to Florida with the intention of engaging in sexual conduct with another minor, who was 15 years old, according to the plea agreement. Before taking a flight from Dallas to Orlando on May 2, Harris, who was 19 at the time, planned to meet the 15-year-old in Orlando for illegal activity.

In Orlando, Harris asked the minor to meet in a public bathroom, where Harris was accused of sexually assaulting the minor. Harris acknowledged one of the reasons for his trip to Orlando was to engage in illegal sexual activity, according to court documents.

Harris has been held without bond since his arrest in September 2020 on child pornography charges. He was charged in the seven-count indictment that added four new alleged victims in the case and brought a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison.

According to Harris’ 29-page plea agreement with prosecutors, the charges he pleaded guilty to carry a mandatory minimum of five years behind bars.

Born in Hinsdale and raised in Bolingbrook, Harris rose to fame on the Emmy-winning reality TV show “Cheer.” The docuseries follows the competitive cheerleading squad at Navarro College in Texas.

Harris graduated in 2017 from Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, where he was a standout student, and studied at Navarro.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com