Cliff Harris, the former Edison High School football star whose drug use and erratic behavior shot down his chances with the Oregon Ducks and the NFL, was sentenced Monday to a year in jail and three years of probation for starting an arson fire that burned a tiny patch of a grassy street median in Fresno.
Harris, wearing shackles and a red jail jumpsuit, only said “Yes, sir” when Superior Court Judge Don Penner asked him if he understood his punishment.
Because of time already served in jail, Harris was expected to be released Monday evening from the Fresno County Jail.
Under terms of his probation, Harris cannot use drugs, drink alcohol or get caught with any incendiary device, Penner said.
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He also must attended a drug treatment program and get mental health counseling as directed by his probation officer.
Since his graduation from Edison High in 2009, Harris, who turned 25 last Saturday, has been in trouble with the law.
But a new fact was revealed Monday. A court-appointed psychiatrist said Harris has CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease that afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions, such as athletes who take part in contact sports.
Harris’s mother, Lizette, who attended Monday’s hearing, declined to comment on her son’s mental health. She said her son, however, will give a statement about his future, which could include another shot at professional football, after he is released from jail.
A court-appointed psychiatrist says Harris has CTE, which stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease afflicting the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions, such as athletes who take part in contact sports.
Harris was an All-American cornerback in 2010 before being kicked off the Ducks in December 2011 for violating team rules. That move, by then-coach Chip Kelly, came after Harris was stopped in June 2011 for speeding at 118 mph by an Oregon state trooper, who said he smelled marijuana in the car. Harris’ reply: “We smoked it all.”
Harris went undrafted in 2012, then signed as a free agent with the Eagles, who cut him after the season. A year later, he was cut by the New York Jets following his arrest for marijuana possession in New Jersey.
Fresno County court records say Harris has a half-dozen traffic tickets for offenses such as speeding, running a stop sign, driving without a license, lane straddling and driving at night without lights. His criminal record includes three misdemeanor cases and the felony arson case. The court record indicates that he has failed to appear in court several times.
He also spent time in a state hospital this year after Penner declared him incompetent to assist in his defense to the arson charge.
In court Monday, Penner said Harris’ only other offense was in July 2009, when he pleaded no contest to obstructing a police officer in the line of duty in connection with an on-campus scuffle at Edison High that April. Police said an officer had to pepper-spray Harris, who had already signed to play at Oregon, and his brother.
“I want to play ball,” Harris said, explaining why he decided to plead no contest instead of fighting the charges.
Harris, who spent three days in jail after his arrest, was sentenced to a year of probation. His younger brother, also an Edison student, was taken to juvenile hall. (Because the younger brother was a minor at the time, his name and the legal proceedings were kept confidential.)
Harris’ current legal problems stem from his arrest on April 4 this year. Police cited Harris shortly before 3 p.m. after officers found him in possession of marijuana and a smoking device on Gettysburg Avenue near West Avenue in northwest Fresno. About an hour later, police arrested Harris after a bystander saw him setting a patch of grass on a street median on fire near Emerson and Bengston avenues.
The bystander put out the fire with a bottle of water. Harris, who had six lighters on him, never explained to police why he did lit the blaze.
After being tossed into jail on the arson charge, criminal proceedings were suspended on April 20 after his lawyer called into question his competency to assist in his defense.
In May, Penner declared Harris legally incompetent after a court-appointed psychiatrist examined Harris. Harris was then sent to Atascadero State Hospital for treatment of an undisclosed medical condition. He returned to Fresno County Jail in September after his competency was restored, court records say. In November, Harris pleaded no contest to the felony arson charge.
On Monday, Penner noted for the record that the patch of burnt grass was one square foot.