Attorneys for Cheer star Jerry Harris cast him as a victim of a predatory cheerleading world in a court filing Wednesday, saying he was "in most respects a child himself" when he allegedly solicited nude photos from underage boys.
In a motion to release him from detention before his trial on a child pornography charge, Harris's lawyers argued that from a young age he had been "fully immersed into the 'cheer' world where sexual predators were largely unchecked with children of all ages."
Harris, the 21-year-old who rose to fame earlier this year on the Netflix docuseries Cheer, was an adult at the time he allegedly coerced a 13-year-old boy to send him photos of his genitals via Snapchat.
But his lawyers suggested he had "barely reached the age of maturity" at the time of the alleged 2018 offenses.
"Mr. Harris was in most respects a child himself interacting with other children," they wrote. "Unlike many individuals charged with similar offense conduct, Mr. Harris was not a coach or supervisor, but was instead a fellow member of the cheer squads."
The filing came a day after federal prosecutors argued Harris was a "brazen sexual predator" who should remain behind bars ahead of his trial.
Authorities hinted further charges could be brought against Harris, stating they had spoken to "multiple other victims." This includes one 15-year-old boy who said Harris sodomized him in an unlocked public bathroom at a cheerleading event.
But Harris's lawyers said the child pornography offense for which Harris is currently charged did not involve any physical force or threat.
They also painted a picture of the cheerleading world, describing it as "vastly different than the typical middle school and high school environments in which most children grow up."
"However, with any age gap comes a difference in the level of maturity for each child," they wrote. "When younger children are placed onto teams with older children, they are inherently exposed to the older children’s communications, relationships, and oftentimes, sexual experiences."
Harris's lawyers also described his "hardscrabble home life," which was discussed in Cheer, noting how he has been "born into crisis and extreme poverty" and that his mother died from lung cancer when he was 10.
Authorities have said Harris requires significant mental health sex offender treatment. His lawyers say he can't receive that or any other psychological treatment if he remains jailed.
They also said he is asthmatic and more at risk of contracting COVID-19.
But the mother of two of Harris's alleged minor victims, including the boy for which he was charged with soliciting pornography, also addressed the court on Wednesday.
In a statement provided to BuzzFeed News by her attorney, Sarah Klein, the mother said her boys had been attacked on social media and suffered psychologically after coming forward but had found some comfort in Harris being arrested and charged.
"His release, even if it is just temporary, will embolden the people who are still seeking to discredit victims and maintain the status quo in a sport where conduct like Mr. Harris’s is routinely ignored and excused," she said. "Mr. Harris should not be residing in a home, sleeping in a comfortable bed and being cared for by a group of cheer moms while my children and his other victims pay a very high price for telling the truth."
Correction: Harris's lawyers said the child pornography offense for which Harris is currently charged did not involve any physical force or threat. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misattributed that statement to federal prosecutors.