The last time the world heard about Yongda Huang Harris was last fall, when the Dorchester man was stopped at Los Angeles International Airport by an agent who noticed he was wearing body armor. In his luggage officials discovered a smoke grenade, a bone saw, a hatchet, what appeared to be body bags, and other items prosecutors later described as essentially a rape and murder kit.
On his computer, authorities found a depiction of rape, molestation, and sexual torture of children.
The case triggered international headlines — but only a minor charge: filing a false custom report. There was nothing illegal about carrying the unusual items he had in his suitcases, so Harris returned to Boston on probation for five years. All authorities could do was keep an eye on him.
The case provides a snapshot of a larger court issue: How to assess and monitor a person’s potential for violence when he or she has never committed a violent crime and so cannot be punished.
“There are yellow flags . . . but there are a lot of people who have yellow flags, and most of these people who have risk characteristics don’t actually commit acts of violence,” said James Alan Fox, a criminology and law professor at Northeastern University.
But, he added, “The problem is it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between those who will, and those who won’t.”
Brad Bailey, a prominent Boston defense attorney and a former state and federal prosecutor, who also served briefly as a Middlesex County sheriff, echoed that view.
“It’s really tough to predict future behavior,” Bailey said, adding that the public will also second-guess a prosecutor’s decision.
“The more you see a pattern, the more you realize the person you’re dealing with is someone who doesn’t understand the breaks they’re getting, and you have to take a hard line because the next step is a new law broken, and it’s a very hard line.”
In the Harris case, he said, the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney are equally trying to strike a balance between preserving Harris’s rights against undeserved punishment while trying to identify whether he is a real threat.
A California judge, speaking at Harris’s sentencing in May, seemed to suggest that Harris — who was in Los Angeles during his return to Boston from Asia — was not violent but rather immature. He “marches to the beat of a different drummer,” said the judge.
Harris’s attorney, Stellio Sinnis, contends that even a psychologist has called Harris “naïve, and immature, and socially awkward.”
“He’s not a terrorist, he’s not a violent human being,” Sinnis said.
Probation and other law enforcement officials, however, have been increasingly concerned with Harris’s refusal to comply with court orders, interfering with their abilities to monitor him. Before his May sentencing, authorities say, Harris violated his supervised release conditions by going to a playground.
A probation officer who made an unannounced visit to Harris’s home found that he had been secretly using his mother’s computer. Authorities said Harris tried to hide his search history, and possessed pornography that glorified “school girls.”
The transgressions did not end there: In the months after he was sentenced, investigators determined that Harris tried on multiple occasions to remove his monitoring bracelet.
Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office in Boston, said prosecutors were “obviously concerned about the nature of Mr. Harris’s actions, including both the conduct from his initial offense in California and in his recent probation violations here in Massachusetts.”
“We will swiftly address any potential violations of existing laws or the current terms of his probation,” she said.
Harris’s probation violations landed him back in court in October. A prosecutor, a judge, and a defense attorney wrangled for 90 minutes over the age-old but increasingly common legal quandary: How to handle a defendant whose conduct may hint at a potential for violence, but who has never been charged with a violent crime.
“This is not a normal case in any extent of the word,” Assistant US Attorney Stacy Belf argued in court, calling Harris’s actions increasingly alarming. “The court must ask itself, ‘What to do with Yongda Harris?’ ”
US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV seemed to agree, saying judges are typically reminded that “the judgment has to fit the crime,” and yet he was also worried about everything else concerning the man before him.
“The judgment has to fit the offender . . . and that’s why I have some pause here,” the judge added.
Harris Sinnis, the court-appointed lawyer for Harris, argued that Harris “has done nothing to hurt anybody” and was in court for nothing more than a probation violation.
“It comes down to what everybody thought he was going to do with these things,” Sinnis said.
The judge, though, said he could not ignore the allegations. He agreed with prosecutors to send Harris to a halfway house for six months beginning in late November so he could receive counseling and be monitored in a tight setting.
“I can’t turn a blind eye as to what this reflects of Mr. Harris, what he thinks . . . what his behavior has been, what his behavior might be in the future,” the judge said.