A former Dallas lawyer was convicted of sexually assaulting a child, but his attorney said the defendant never touched the girl and there were legal errors in the trial. He plans to file a motion for a new trial, said defense lawyer Tom Pappas.
A Collin County jury found disbarred Dallas attorney Michael Harssema guilty of sexual assault of a child and two counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact, and he was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison and pay a $10,000 fine for each of the three convictions. He’ll serve concurrent sentences on two of the three convictions, which means his total sentence is 40 years, according to Collin County District Clerk records. Harssema was arrested March 9, and he’s being held in the Collin County Jail, according to jail records.
“I want to be really clear—he didn’t touch her,” said Pappas, partner in Burleson Pate & Gibson in Dallas. “There’s no use of force, there’s no use of nonforce, there was no touching whatsoever.”
A press release from the Collin County Criminal District Attorney’s office, which prosecuted Harssema, said that a child victim in January 2014 reported to a therapist that Harssema sexually assaulted her. In the two-week trial the victim’s mother testified that the girl had an eating disorder and drug addiction. The mother hired Harssema, and when he met the victim, he separated the mother and girl, “telling the mother that the victim would open up more about her struggles if he met with her privately,” the statement said. Harssema gave the girl Xanax and alcohol when they were alone.
“Instead of driving the victim home from their dinner meeting, Harssema stopped at a nearby 7-11 where he purchased more alcohol. He later pulled into an Allen neighborhood where he sexually assaulted the underage victim,” said the D.A.’s press release.
The mother tried calling Harssema more than 30 times but he didn’t answer, although evidence showed he was taking other calls. Cell phone records placed Harssema and the victim in the area that she had described, the statement said.
“During the punishment phase of the trial, prosecutors introduced evidence of a 2012 sexual assault of another victim who reported Harssema assaulted her while he was working as her attorney,” said the statement.
Collin County assistant DA’s Shannon Miller and Crystal Levonius, who prosecuted the case, each didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.
Pappas, Harssema’s lawyer, said Harssema separated the mother and girl because he believed the girl’s interests were opposite of the mother’s. When he was driving the 16-year-old girl home, his car broke down and overheated. His phone wasn’t working when the girl’s mother tried calling him, Pappas said.
“At the end of the day, the jury was upset a lawyer would be alone with a troubled teenager under these circumstances for that amount of time,” Pappas said, saying the jury felt that, “If he was, the only explanation could be what the girl claimed.”
Pappas said when the girl testified, she blurted out information about Harssema’s pending case in Dallas County, even though that information was prohibited through a motion in limine. The judge denied Pappas’s objection and motion for mistrial, but did tell the jury not to consider the statement.
“About an hour after the jury began deliberations we received a note and they said they wanted to rehear or have replayed that part of the testimony they weren’t supposed to consider,” Pappas said, noting that the court didn’t allow it. “We believe there was error in this case, and if there hadn’t been, there might have been a different result.”
According to Harssema’s profile on the State Bar of Texas website, he was disbarred in 2014. In that case, a client in 2012 hired Harsemma to represent him in a criminal matter and paid him some cash and provided a motorcycle to Harsemma as security to pay the balance. Although the client did pay the rest, Harsemma didn’t return the title to the motorcycle. Later, he failed to return the unearned portion of the fee in the case. In another grievance, a client said Harsemma didn’t keep him informed about his matters or respond to requests for information. Harsemma never answered the lawsuit and the court disbarred him in a default judgment.
His state bar profile also said that in November 2006, he received a disability suspension from November 2006 to October 2008, and in August 2007 he received a partially probated suspension from October 2008 to January 2009. Harssema earned his law degree in 1999 from Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas. He received his law license the same year. Harssema’s profile said that he practiced administrative and public, business, criminal litigation, commercial litigation and personal injury law.
Angela Morris is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @AMorrisReports