JAMES HARRIS is a man tormented.

He dreams often of suffocating, choking as he wakes, unable to catch his breath. He keeps a knife tucked into his waistband almost always, a desperate defense against horrors he can easily imagine because he says he has lived them. He hesitates to get into anyone's car, unwilling to surrender control to the person behind the wheel. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia.

Although five years have passed since the incident that changed his life, his torment doesn't end because his tormentor is still out there.

In uniform.

Although Philadelphia Police Officer Michael Paige was arrested and fired in 2007 for allegedly forcing Harris to perform oral sex on him in his police cruiser in Fairmount Park, Paige is back on the force, patrolling the streets of West Philadelphia. Paige dodged conviction, despite DNA evidence proving that a sexual encounter had occurred, because the judge accused Harris of playing the victim after consensual sex.

Harris remains haunted by his past. But he hopes he'll begin to see relief next week. After filing a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Paige and the city in 2008, his case goes to trial Monday.

"I just want somebody to just simply say this disease did what he did," said Harris, 34, of North Philadelphia. "If I were a young white girl, he would have been hammered, nailed to the cross. Because I'm a young black male and he's a cop, they believed him."

Brian Puricelli, the attorney representing Paige, declined to comment Wednesday, saying he didn't want to try his case in the press. Paige, 45, a National Guard drill sergeant who was reached Wednesday while on military leave from the Police Department, defended his actions that night as "explainable" but also declined to comment specifically, saying: "I believe you would better learn [the details] by coming to the trial."

The saga started in the early hours of March 16, 2007, when Harris went with a friend to the Belmont Plateau, where they parked to smoke marijuana and hang out after a late-season snowstorm.

About 2 a.m., Paige pulled up in his marked police cruiser.

Things immediately got weird, Harris said.

Harris said that Paige directed him to sit in the front passenger seat of his cruiser while he looked over his vehicle paperwork and questioned him about his sexual preferences, Harris said. He then told Harris to take his friend home and return to the park, withholding Harris' car registration and insurance papers to ensure his complicity, according to Harris and detectives who later investigated the incident. Back at the park, Harris said, Paige directed him back into the front passenger seat of his cruiser and then drove past a locked gate deep into the wooded park.

He parked, scooched down his pants and underwear and then turned to Harris, pushing Harris' head down to his exposed crotch, Harris said. He then forced unprotected oral sex on Harris three times, according to Harris and court paperwork.

"The whole time, I just felt like I wanted to die. I still feel that way," Harris said this week.

After a while, the cop climbed out of the cruiser and walked a short distance to urinate, leaving the keys in the ignition and his gun on the seat, Harris said.

Harris was sorely tempted to escape. But he didn't. Fear paralyzed him.

"I knew he's crazy. Only a crazy person could do what he's done. I just knew he gonna do what he want to. He gonna kill me," Harris said.

Instead, Harris said, the officer returned to the cruiser and then delivered Harris back to his car. As Harris pulled away from the park, nausea set in. He grabbed a cup leftover from a recent meal and spat into it as he sped home. He reported the incident to authorities the next morning.

An internal-affairs investigation ensued, and DNA tests linked the cup's contents to Paige. Detectives determined "nonconsensual sexual activity" occurred, and Commissioner Sylvester Johnson fired Paige in May 2007.

By the end of the year, the case was in criminal court. But Judge Anthony DeFino acquitted Paige of kidnapping, indecent sexual contact and related offenses. Paige never took the stand, and the judge said he believed the encounter was consensual.

"The victim was treated like a criminal. This was a miscarriage of justice. If these were two civilians, there would have been a different verdict," said Harris' attorney, Brian Humble.

Paige was compelled to testify in Harris' suit. At deposition, Paige insisted he invited Harris into his car only to "mentor" a troubled young man. He denied that any sex, consensual or otherwise, took place. Instead, the married officer offered an unusual defense that another judge, rejecting Paige's plea for summary judgment in Harris' civil-rights complaint, called outrageous: Paige claimed that he frequently had consensual sex with women in the secluded spot and that Harris somehow found the spot, fished one of Paige's used condoms from the snow and dumped its contents, along with Harris' spit, into the Styrofoam cup detectives later had tested for DNA.

After his acquittal, the Fraternal Order of Police went to bat for him to return to work. The arbitrator concluded that oral sex had occurred but that prosecutors failed to prove it was forced. So he reduced Paige's dismissal to a 30-day suspension. Paige returned to work in April 2009, police spokesman Lt. Ray Evers said. He also got back pay; an amount wasn't immediately available, but his current salary is $62,519, according to city payroll records.

Paige, who joined the force in 1989, had a lengthy disciplinary history even before he met Harris.

As a rookie, he was suspended for repeatedly sleeping while on duty, allowing a prisoner to escape through carelessness and pursuing a motorist out of his district, according to court records. In 1994, a suspect complained that Paige stole $1,200 from his car during an arrest; that suspect later refused to participate in the internal-affairs probe, and Paige was suspended only for failing to complete an incident report and property receipt, court records show.

In 1995, his supervisor recommended his dismissal for loafing and repeated violations of police rules. Instead, he was suspended for failing to properly patrol his beat. That same supervisor again recommended his dismissal a few months later after a suspect complained that Paige hit him. Without corroborating witnesses, detectives didn't sustain that charge.

Most controversial, Paige was one of nine officers accused in the 1994 death of Moises DeJesus, a violent suspect high on cocaine who died after struggling with officers. The Police Advisory Commission found that the force used by officers contributed to DeJesus' death from a cocaine overdose, and further that officers lied when they denied hitting DeJesus on the head with nightsticks and flashlights. Paige was suspended for lying in that investigation. n

Reach Dana DiFilippo at difilid@phillynews.com or 215-854-5934. Read her blog at phillyconfidential.com.