Jerry Harris, one of the breakout stars of the Netflix docuseries “Cheer,” was sentenced Wednesday to 12 years in prison on federal charges involving child sexual abuse images.
Harris, 22, was indicted on seven counts of receiving and attempting to receive child pornography and of persuading minors to engage in sexual contact from August 2017 to August 2020. Prosecutors said the acts involved victims in Texas, Florida and Illinois.
His was sentenced to 12 years in prison, to be followed by 8 years of court-supervised release, Joseph D. Fitzpatrick, assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, confirmed to NBC News.
Prosecutors had sought a 15-year sentence for Harris, writing in a sentencing memorandum that he used “his status as a competitive cheerleader, his social media persona, and eventually his celebrity and money” to persuade underage boys into sending sexually explicit content.
Harris, who promoted himself as a “mentor who could be trusted,” would pressure his victims and offer to pay them in exchange for sexual conduct and favors, prosecutors said. When that did not work, he “threatened to disseminate the videos they had sent if they refused to continue,” according to the sentencing memorandum.
Prosecutors said Harris’ behavior persisted until his arrest in September 2020.
Attorneys for Harris argued that their client experienced sexual assault as a child and therefore had a “skewed version of what he understood to be appropriate relationships,” court documents stated. They asked for six years in prison.
The former cheerleader and television star initially pleaded not guilty to the charges but changed it in February to plead guilty to two of the counts in the indictment, receiving child pornography and engaging in interstate travel for the purpose of engaging in a sexual act with a minor.
Two of the victims are twin brothers. One of the boys told police that Harris solicited oral sex from him in a bathroom during a cheerleading event they both attended, according to a complaint. Harris was also accused of contacting the boy on Instagram in 2018 when Harris was 19 and the boy was 13, the complaint said.
The complaint further alleges that one of the boys said he sent Harris nude pictures on Snapchat at Harris’ request and communicated with Harris on FaceTime, where Harris asked the boy to expose himself.
One brother told investigators that Harris was “touchy” and did “odd things” to him and his sibling, according to the complaint. He said Harris would ask for nude pictures from him and when the boy refused, Harris would become “pushy,” the complaint said.
The brothers shared their story on the second season of “Cheer,” saying that they were initially fearful about speaking up because of Harris’ celebrity and how it would affect their status in the cheer community.
Sarah Klein, attorney for the brothers, commended the teenage boys for their “tremendous courage” and sacrifice in a statement following Harris’ sentencing.
“Jerry Harris’ guilt has been firmly established,” Klein said. “The sentence he received reflects the severity of his crimes and the lifetime of pain his victims will suffer.”
The boys gave victim statements before the sentencing, and one of the brothers remarked on mourning his lost freedom and childhood.
“I had to quit cheering at my old gym because people there disagreed with me and my family because of deciding to speak out,” he said. “The only true community I had at that time I felt like I had was taken away from me for doing the right thing.”
Another victim, who was 17, told investigators that Harris was “relentless” in soliciting pictures from him on Snapchat, according to the complaint. The boy said he turned Harris down repeatedly until Harris offered to pay him.
Harris allegedly admitted to investigators during a voluntary interview to having sent and receiving nude images and to having texted the brothers, according to the complaint. He also told investigators that he had solicited and received nude pictures from 10 to 15 other minors and had oral and anal sex with a 15-year-old, the complaint said.
Harris appeared on the docuseries “Cheer,” which follows a Texas cheerleading team at Navarro College. Season 2 of the series addressed the allegations against Harris.