Judge would not be persuaded by Harper supporters

Sitting shoulder to shoulder in eight rows and the jury box, they packed the sixth-floor courtroom Downtown in support of Nate Harper, the former Pittsburgh police chief who to them was something else -- a loving husband, a doting father, a nurturing grandfather and a man of integrity.

In the eyes of the law -- and of U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, who Tuesday sent Harper to prison for 18 months on conspiracy and tax charges -- Harper was a felon who abused the public trust.

But during a roughly two-hour sentencing hearing, 10 character witnesses tried fruitlessly to persuade the judge to spare Harper from prison by depicting another side to the fallen lawman.

Harper's attorney reacts to sentence

Robert Del Greco, attorney for former Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper, talks about the 18-month prison sentence given his client today by U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon. (Video by Nate Guidry; 2/25/2014)

U.S. attorney weighs in on Harper sentencing

U.S. Attorney David Hickton, in a news conference this afternoon, said the prosecution of Harper is over, but the investigation of the city is not. (Video by Nate Guidry; 2/25/2014)

There were family members, friends, a minister, a high school chum with whom he played drums, and a clutch of old-time cops, many of whom had known Harper since he came on the force in 1977 and during his rise through the ranks from motorcycle officer to narcotics supervisor to chief.

Thanks to the presence of Harper supporters, the media and federal employees, the courtroom was so full that even U.S. attorney David Hickton had to stand for a portion of the proceeding.

One of Harper's daughters, Crystal Harper, 38, a single mother of three, wept on the stand as she described how her father cared for her 7-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy.

"He watches her. He gives her therapy. When she was born, he slept at the hospital. He wouldn't leave," Ms. Harper said. "She calls him her daddy."

Harper's wife, Cynthia, 59, a retired Pittsburgh police officer, said the past year has devastated her family.

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"We don't go anywhere. We don't do anything anymore. Our lives have been sucked out of us," Mrs. Harper said. "It's destroyed him."

Ever polite, on his way out of the courtroom Harper remained silent even though his wife and others in his entourage jumped to his defense when a reporter posed a question.

When it was Harper's turn to address the court, his voice cracked. He praised God first. Then he turned to his failings.

"I'm a broken man," Harper said. "I will carry this to my grave."

After a 15-minute recess, the judge handed down her sentence.

Despite Harper's remorse, despite the good he did over decades, despite his non-violent reputation and lack of criminal history, Judge Bissoon said a prison sentence was warranted. She noted that he did not transgress once, but multiple times.

Robert Cessar, the federal prosecutor who ran the investigation that led to Harper's conviction, had mixed feelings about the day.

"In many ways, your honor, I am conflicted by being here today," Mr. Cessar said. "If I was not an assistant United States attorney I may have been one of the people writing a letter for him today."

However, Mr. Cessar added, he took an oath to uphold the law -- "the same oath Mr. Harper broke."

Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. Rich Lord contributed.

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