A judge in Chicago sentenced Jerry Harris, the Navarro College cheerleader who became a breakout star of the Netflix documentary series “Cheer,” to 12 years in prison on Wednesday on guilty pleas to two of seven federal charges related to sex crimes involving minors in February.
Mr. Harris, 22, had reached a plea deal in February in which prosecutors agreed that after sentencing on the two counts — the charges that he persuaded a 17-year-old to send him sexually explicit photos for money and traveled to Florida “for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct” with a 15-year-old — they would ask that the remaining charges be dropped. He had initially pleaded not guilty to all seven charges in December 2020.
Mr. Harris’s plea agreement noted that sentencing guidelines “may recommend 50 years in prison” for the offenses, though Judge Manish S. Shah had noted that he might decide differently. Judge Shah also ordered Mr. Harris to serve eight years of court-supervised release following his prison term.
A lawyer for Mr. Harris, Todd Pugh, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
In a memo filed before the hearing, prosecutors had asked Judge Shah to sentence Mr. Harris to 15 years in prison, arguing that Mr. Harris took advantage of “his status as a competitive cheerleader, his social media persona, and eventually his celebrity and money, to persuade and entice his young victims to engage in sexually explicit conduct for him or with him.”
Mr. Harris’s lawyers had requested a six-year prison term, to be followed by eight years of supervised release, arguing that Mr. Harris had himself been sexually abused as a child in the world of competitive cheerleading and therefore had a “skewed version of what he understood to be appropriate relationships.”
The sentencing caps a case that began nearly two years ago in September 2020, when Mr. Harris was arrested and charged with production of child pornography, months after the release of “Cheer,” which follows a national champion cheerleading team from a small-town Texas community college.
Around the same time, he was sued by teenage twin brothers who said he had sent sexually explicit messages to them, requested nude photos and solicited sex from them. (Mr. Harris befriended the boys when they were 13 and he was 19, USA Today reported.)
In a voluntary interview with the authorities in 2020, Mr. Harris acknowledged that he had exchanged sexually explicit photos on Snapchat with at least 10 to 15 people he knew were minors and had sex with a 15-year-old at a cheerleading competition in 2019, according to a criminal complaint.
After federal agents interviewed other minors who said they had had relationships with Mr. Harris, they filed additional felony charges against him. The charges that Mr. Harris did not plead guilty to as part of the agreement include four counts of sexual exploitation of children and one count of enticement. The seven charges involve five minor boys.
Mr. Harris has been held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago since his arrest.