Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

James Harris

Other Harris County, Texas exonerations with mistaken witness identification
On June 17, 2009, Houston police officers Christopher Aranda and Emmanuel Pierson were working in the Differential Response Team, a unit which was responsible for locating unsanitary yards and to try to speak with property owners to get them cleaned up.

About 2:30 p.m. they were near the 2300 block of Kirk Street when they saw a woman, Lisa Evans, walking to an area the officers knew to be a location for drug sales. Pierson got out of the police car and began to follow Evans to the rear of a house. Meanwhile, Aranda got out and stood about 10 yards away from the front door.

As Aranda stood there, two Black men came out. One was 5 feet 9 to 5 feet 10 inches tall, had tattoos on his chest and weighed about 160 pounds. He was wearing blue shorts and a white tank top. The other man was heavier, wore red shorts, a white shirt and a red cap. The skinnier man ran away and escaped. The heavier man went back inside the house and also managed to get away.

The two men had been flushed out by Pierson who followed Evans into the house. They ran and Pierson stopped to arrest Evans.

Inside the house, the officers discovered more than 570 grams of cocaine, some marijuana, three firearms, two cell phones, razor blades, and a measuring scale. Aranda concluded the house was a “cook house,” where people went to cook up their drugs.

Aranda told Evans that unless she could provide information on the suspects, she was going to be charged with possession of all the drugs and other contraband. She said she knew the skinnier of the two men as “Man.”

Aranda then informed Evans’s husband, Ronald Manning, of the situation. Manning began making calls on his cell phone and told Aranda that “Man” was 34-year-old James Harris. About eight hours later, Aranda looked at a booking photo of Harris, who had a prior drug possession conviction, and concluded that Harris was the skinnier man who fled.

Two cars were parked at the house. One was a Cadillac that was registered to Patricia Harris, sister of James Harris. One day later, Ernest Modeste was arrested while in the Cadillac. The other car was a Dodge Charger registered to James Noble.

On July 25, 2009, Harris was charged with possession with intent to deliver cocaine and illegal use of a firearm. He faced a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison if convicted. Neither Aranda nor Pierson was able to identify Modeste as the heavier of the two men, and Modeste was released.

Prior to trial, the prosecution offered Harris deals to plead guilty. He was first offered a 25-year sentence, which he rejected. The prosecution then offered 12 years, then 5 years, and, finally, two years. Harris rejected them all and said he was innocent.

Harris went to trial in April in Harris County Criminal District Court. Aranda testified and identified him as the man who fled from the front door. While police were processing the scene, Lashanda Cambric knocked on the front door. When police opened it, Cambric was standing there with money in her hand. She was questioned as well. Aranda testified that Evans and Cambric told him that “Man” was James Harris.

Assistant district attorney Joshua Somers asked Aranda, “[Is there] any question or doubt or hesitation in your mind that the photograph of James Harris that you viewed is the same person that you saw run out of that house that day?”

“There’s no doubt,” Aranda testified.

Pierson testified that while he was unable to identify Harris’s face, Harris’s tattoos and body weight were similar to the man he saw in the house. Pierson testified that one of the phones in the house was linked to “Man” and the other was linked to someone identified as “E.” Pierson also testified that Evans and Cambric told them that “Man” was Harris.

Patricia Harris, Harris’s sister, testified for the defense that about 18 months prior to the trial, she had sold her Cadillac to “Ernest,” whom she knew as “Big E.” She identified a photograph of Modeste as the man who bought her car.

Iris Williams testified that she lived at 2212 Kirk Street, about a block from the house where the drugs were found, for about 32 years. She knew James Harris because he had lived across the street from her at 2213 Kirk Street until about 12 years prior to his arrest.

Evans testified that she went to the house to purchase crack cocaine. She said she saw “Man” and another man in the house she knew as “E.” She said she had purchased cocaine from “Man” in the past, but she did not know his name.

Abrae Hutchinson testified that he was a next-door neighbor of Harris and that on June 17, 2009, they cleaned grass off the fence, gave dogs worm medications, threw sulfur for fleas, washed cars, and worked on the brakes of one vehicle. They also barbequed, Hutchinson said.

On April 9, 2010, the jury convicted Harris of possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In May 2011, the First Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.

In March 2012, Harris, acting as his own attorney, filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was denied in August 2012.

In October 2012, Harris filed a motion seeking DNA testing on the evidence. At that time, attorney Celeste Blackburn was appointed to represent Harris. In April 2013, the Harris County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit began reviewing Harris’s case at the request of Harris and his family.

On December 3, 2013, Harris was released from prison on parole.

In February 2014, Blackburn filed a motion for DNA testing. The motion was granted on March 31, 2014. DNA tests were conducted in 2015 and 2016 on the packaging of the cocaine as well as the scale. A partial profile was obtained from a DNA mixture. Harris was excluded as a source of the DNA.

The CIU interviewed Modeste, who said that “Man” was not Harris. Modeste also denied that he was at the house at the time. The CIU also interviewed Orlando Noble, who drove a Dodge Charger at the time of the incident. Noble acknowledged that people called him “Man,” because his mother called him “Little Man” when he was growing up.

In October 2018, Blackburn filed another state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus. On June 13, 2019, a hearing was held before Judge Josh Hill. Aranda testified to the events of the day when he and Pierson decided to follow Evans. He first testified that Evans and Cambric both told him that Harris lived there and that Harris was “Man.” After he was shown the typed statements from Evans and Cambric, Aranda admitted that neither said Harris was “Man” and neither said Harris lived there. Aranda corrected his testimony to say that Manning, Evans’s husband, gave Harris’s name as “Man.”

Aranda admitted that he had testified at Harris’s trial that both Evans and Cambric identified Harris as “Man,” but that information was not documented in the reports. He admitted the reports attributed the identification to Manning.

Evidence presented at the hearing showed that Orlando Noble, whose brother was the registered owner of the Dodge Charger parked at the house on Kirk Street, was 5 feet 10 inches tall, 180 pounds. Noble also had a tattoo of a rosary around his neck—similar to the description of the tattoos that Aranda attributed to Harris. Noble also bore a striking facial resemblance to Harris, Aranda admitted.

Aranda testified that at the time of the crime, he was unaware that Orlando Noble was known as “Man” and that Patricia Harris had sold her Cadillac to “E.” Aranda acknowledged that Orlando Noble could have been driving the Dodge Charger registered to James Noble, Orlando’s brother.

On the day of the hearing, prior to testimony, trial prosecutor Somers approached Aranda and asked, “Are you Officer Aranda? You know, you’re the officer that identified James Harris.”

Aranda replied, “Well, I think I did.”

During his testimony, Aranda acknowledged that he could have seen Orlando Noble instead of Harris. Asked whether he was still sure of his identification of Harris, Aranda said, “Like I said, anything is possible. Maybe I was mistaken.”

Somers testified at the hearing that he took the case to trial after Harris rejected the plea deal carrying only a two-year sentence because “to do so otherwise would say we don’t believe our officer.” Somers said he talked to Aranda prior to the trial. Aranda said he was “positive” and “a hundred percent sure,” Somers recalled.

Somers also testified that had Aranda said, “Well, I think I did” to Somers prior or even mid-trial, Somers would have moved to dismiss the case.

Evidence presented at the hearing showed that a printout of Orlando Noble from the police gang database showed his middle name was “Mann.”

In May 2020, Judge Hill approved findings of fact and conclusions of law presented jointly by the prosecution and Blackburn recommending that the writ be granted. “Had Aranda acknowledged he may have been mistaken in his identification of James Harris, had the prosecutor had the gang printout reflecting Orlando Noble as having a middle name of “Mann,” and had the information regarding the similarities between James and Orlando Noble been known to the prosecutor at the time of trial, the case would have been dismissed,” the recommendation said.

On September 15, 2021, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ and vacated Harris’s convictions. “Based on the record, the trial court has determined that [Harris] has established by clear and convincing evidence that he is actually innocent. We agree,” the court said.

On October 29, 2021, the prosecution dismissed the case.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 4/20/2022
Last Updated: 4/20/2022
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2009
Sentence:25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:34
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes