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The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
February 11, 2000
Author: Charlie Chapple St. Tammany bureau
Tangipahoa District Attorney Scott M. Perrilloux said Thursday that his office agreed to the reduced charge because “the victim again, once again, has changed her mind and decided not to cooperate in the prosecution.”
“We decided it was in everyone’s best interests to resolve it the way it was done,” Perrilloux said.
Harwell has maintained his innocence and said Thursday that his plea of no contest lets him resolve the matter without an admission of guilt.
Harwell said he wanted to fight the charges in court, but couldn’t afford it. “I had already spent $15,000 on legal fees,” he said. “To go to trial would have cost me more. It doesn’t really matter if you’re innocent, you still have to pay the piper.”
During a Jan. 5 hearing before state Judge Zorraine Waguespack in Amite, the district attorney’s office dropped the false imprisonment charge and reduced the second-degree battery to simple battery, to which Harwell pleaded no contest.
The judge ordered Harwell to attend a 16-week “anger management class” and report for sentencing July 18. Harwell said his plea agreement calls for him to receive six months’ probation.
Simple battery carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $500 fine. The two felony charges Harwell had been facing carried total sentences of up to 5 1/2 years in prison and fines up to $2,200.
Harwell, 51, said he has begun attending counseling classes and that he and his girlfriend of five years are seeing each other again, attending a church near Hammond regularly.
On the weekend of Aug. 7, according to the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office, the two had been drinking at a Hammond lounge and got into an argument after leaving the bar. Johnston, according to investigators, alleged that Harwell hit her and bit her on the arm during the argument. Harwell then took Johnston to the Hammond Motel and allegedly held her against her will for two days, investigators said.
But on Nov. 3, when Harwell was in a runoff battle with Bruce Authement for the 5th District Parish Council seat, Johnston recanted her story in a public statement.
She said Harwell never harmed her and actually saved her life during the outing. Both had been drinking 151-proof rum while on Prozac medication, Johnston said. She said she had a bad reaction to the combination and tried to jump out of Harwell’s moving pickup truck. Harwell grabbed her and kept her from jumping out of the truck, Johnston said.
A month after she made the statement, Johnston testified to a Tangipahoa Parish grand jury, which indicted Harwell on the two charges. Johnston then sought shelter in a home for battered women after testifying.
Harwell said Thursday that he is not allowed to make initial contact with Johnston, but the woman can make contact with him, which she does frequently. “I’m just glad to get all this over with,” he said.