Jerry Harris, the breakout star of Netflix’s Cheer who has been accused of coercing nearly a dozen young boys into sending him explicit photos and videos, is a victim of the competitive cheerleading world “where sexual predators were largely unchecked with children of all ages,” his lawyers said in a Wednesday motion arguing for his release on bail.
Harris, 21, has been in federal custody since his arrest last month on child pornography charges. He allegedly pressured at least 10 young boys—including a 13-year-old he met on Instagram—to send him explicit photos and videos, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois said. He also allegedly admitted to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old in an unlocked public bathroom during a cheerleading event last year and now faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Harris’ lawyers argue he should be released on bond to receive “mental health treatment” after a childhood in cheerleading that “exposed” him to the sexual experiences of older kids. But prosecutors insist the 21-year-old is a “clear and present danger” as a “brazen sexual predator” who cannot control his urges.
“Harris is a dangerous child predator who targets children all over the country for purposes of sexual exploitation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Parente wrote in a Tuesday motion that said Harris should be denied bond. “Harris exhibits all the signs of a serial child predator and unless and until he receives significant mental health sex offender treatment, he will remain a danger to any child he encounters, either online or in-person.”
Prosecutors allege that he befriended two twin teenage brothers online, both 13, and “repeatedly solicited child pornography images and videos” from them. A criminal complaint also details Harris’ encounters with three other minors that didn’t form the basis of the criminal charge, including a 15-year-old boy whom Harris admitted to having anal and oral sex with at a cheerleading event in 2019, and a 17-year-old boy who was allegedly paid $2,000 to $3,000 by Harris to send photos and videos.
“Harris’ sexual assault of this boy in such a public place, in an unlocked public bathroom, during an event attended by dozens of responsible adults demonstrates that Harris either does not care about being caught committing his offenses, or simply cannot stop himself,” Parente wrote, noting that the cheerleader’s attempts to coerce young boys were “often unsuccessful.”
“As Harris’ fame grew through his acting career, Harris appears to have added to his predatory arsenal by using money to exploit his minor victims,” Parente added.
The charges came after USA Today reported that Harris was under investigation by the FBI, and after a lawsuit was filed in Texas by two teenagers who accused him of sexual harassment.
According to the government’s Tuesday motion, “even when Harris was tipped off to a possible investigation into his crimes” by the owner of a gymnasium, the 21-year-old “was not able to control his impulses and he continued to victimize multiple other children while living in a residence with responsible adults present.”
Prosecutors also argued it would be unsafe to release Harris because, since his Sept. 17 arrest, investigators have spoken with “multiple other victims who all describe near-identical criminal conduct by Harris involving the sexual exploitation of minors.”
“Harris must not be allowed to harm another child,” the prosecutor wrote, indicating that more charges against Harris are possible based on the new alleged victims.
Defense lawyers for the cheerleader—who rose to fame last year as a fan favorite in the Netflix series about his team at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas—insist Harris is not a flight risk or danger to the community and should be allowed to leave jail pending trial.
In the Wednesday motion, attorney Todd S. Pugh insisted Harris is just a victim of his environment, as cheerleading coaches expect “team members to bond and establish relationships with teammates outside of practice,” regardless of their age. While this type of team building results in “mutual trust among teammates,” it also forces younger children to be exposed to relationships—and sexual experiences—with those older than them, Pugh argued.
“In the early years of Mr. Harris’ life, he was fully immersed into the ‘cheer’ world where sexual predators were largely unchecked with children of all ages,” the defense lawyer said. “At the time of the purported offense conduct described in the Criminal Complaint, Mr. Harris was in most respects a child himself interacting with other children.”
Pugh noted that Harris has already arranged for a mental-health “evaluation and treatment” outside jail. The defense lawyer also brought up Harris’ childhood, stating he was “born into crisis and extreme poverty,” which included watching his mother pass away on their shared bed in a motel and relentless bullying at school.
“While Mr. Harris enjoyed the good fortune and generosity of his adoptive families of the ‘cheer’ community, it is obvious that the hardships of his younger years had not been professionally addressed,” the lawyer said, adding that Harris is asthmatic and therefore at risk of contracting COVID-19 while behind bars.
In addition to his involvement on the cheerleading team at Navarro College, Harris also coached at National Cheerleaders Association camps. He was beloved by Cheer viewers and his team members for his upbeat attitude and humility after not “making mat” for a major competition in Daytona.
After the show, Harris had scored endorsement deals with Cheerios and Walmart and even made a guest appearance with other cast members on Oprah Winfrey’s national wellness tour. He held an Instagram chat with Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden in June.
Harris’ attorneys did not respond to a request for comment. A Netflix spokesperson told People magazine in September that “like everyone, we are shocked by this news. Any abuse of minors is a terrible crime and we respect the legal process.”