Miss Cleo Attorney Decries 'Witch Hunt'

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Youree Dell Harris, better known as Miss Cleo, is the victim of a "new age witch hunt," her attorney said yesterday in announcing that he had filed a motion to dismiss charges against her in Florida.


Harris has been sued, along with her employer, Psychic Readers Network, by the state of Florida on charges of misleading consumers. Florida is the only state to sue Harris as an individual. Eight other states and the Federal Trade Commission have pursued Access Resource Services Inc., the company that operates the Psychic Readers Network and employed Harris.


William J. Cone, the Fort Lauderdale, FL, attorney representing Harris, said in a statement that the motive behind the state's charges was to "mock and discredit" his client. He has asked a state court in Florida to dismiss the charges "on factual as well as legal grounds."


"Our Constitution provides all of us with the presumption of innocence," Cone wrote. "Youree Dell Harris, a/k/a Miss Cleo, is one of us; and she is entitled to the same dignity, respect and presumption. The public inquisition and disdain mimics that of a modern day witch hunt. The motive is the same -- to discredit and mock what we do not understand. ... Securing a human being's liberty is not just a challenge but a duty. We will be elated when the undisputed truth is brought to light."


The Florida attorney general's office declined to comment on Cone's statement. A hearing on the motion to dismiss is set for May 8.


In his statement, Cone noted that with Dionne Warwick and other celebrities who promoted psychic services through infomercials, the public was aware that the services were for entertainment purposes only. Unlike them, Miss Cleo has drawn intense public scrutiny.


Newspapers and television news stations have disclosed Harris' name, place of residence and birth certificate, Cone said. He suggested that the allegations against his client may be politically motivated.


"Would Miss Cleo be a household name had it not been for Access Resources Inc. (sic) or would she have been another undiscovered talent?" he asked. "Is this Florida politics or a bad remake of the Salem witch trials?"


According to Cone, Harris only lent her image to Access Resource Services, much like a model, and is not responsible for the company's marketing. The attorney also attacked Florida's charge that Harris deceived consumers by claiming to be a Jamaican shaman when her birth certificate shows she was born in California.


"When does a person's accent or lack thereof determine where a person is from?" Cone asked. "Better yet, when has a person's physical build and appearance determined their origin. As published in a recent newspaper article, the journalist states, 'If you were to see her, you would know she is not Jamaican.' If this journalist had done his homework, he would have known that there are White Jamaicans, Asian Jamaicans, Indian Jamaicans, etc. So what DOES a Jamaican look like? Once again, despite the fact that this is the 21st century and perceptions are supposed to be different, society displays its shameless need for cultural labels and racist stereotypes."


Cone offers seven scenarios to explain Harris' link to Jamaica, though he doesn't say which is true. Among them: "One, a child is born in America and leaves shortly after birth to live in Jamaica, returns many years later with the Jamaican culture and accent. Where does the child identify as home? Whose culture does he or she adapt (sic)? Two, parents come to the United States, a child is born. The parents tell the hospital they are from the United States. The child is raised in the United States but visits the parents' home country frequently. What goes on the birth certificate?"


An FTC representative said there have been no developments in the agency's case against Access Resource Services since it agreed to allow the company to continue operating with an independent monitor reviewing its operations. A trial is tentatively set for August 2003.


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