After admitting that she embezzled $509,000 from a South Philadelphia bank, Katherine Harrell got a huge break last year.
Swayed by accounts of her cooperation with the FBI and Harrell's claim that her son and bedridden brother would be institutionalized without her being free to care for them, a judge sentenced the Lansdowne woman to just a day in prison.
Problem is, Harrell was lying.
Her brother was never in a car crash, as she had claimed. Her parents were ready to care for her boy.
On Thursday, Harrell's fate swung to the other end of the punishment spectrum. Citing a "web of lies" that fooled too many people, U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno sentenced Harrell to 70 months in prison for corrupting justice.
"Nothing is grosser to the administration of justice than an attempt to tilt the scales of justice with lies or untruths," he told her during a hearing.
The term was nearly three times the punishment recommended under federal guidelines, and close to twice as long as what she could have faced last year for the embezzlement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen L. Grigsby said the offense "really does strike at the core of the criminal justice system."
A 31-year-old who conceded she had spent much of the last two decades hooked on drugs, Harrell duped everyone - prosecutors, agents, probation officials, and her own public defender - with a whopper that was unraveled with just one phone call.
The call came a day after she was sentenced in April 2012 by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, when her supposedly disabled brother called the court to find out about the case.
The judge's staff then contacted FBI Special Agent Michael Attard, who reached out to Harrell's brother and discovered that her tale of woe had indeed been fabricated, records show. Attard confronted Harrell and she confessed.
A day earlier, the agent had sung Harrell's praises to the judge. He said her cooperation in one drug investigation led to the arrest of five gang members. He said she helped agents in an investigation of a local biker gang and was assisting them in an unsolved homicide in Lansdowne.
"We think she can be very helpful, and, of course, she would only be helpful if she is not incarcerated," Attard testified, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Both the agent and Harrell's public defender said she was caring for her disabled brother while at the same time acting as primary caretaker for his daughter and her own son. "She has absolutely pulled herself together really extraordinarily, assuming full responsibility for her son, her niece, and her brother," said the defender, Elizabeth Toplin.
Harrell was her own biggest advocate, telling Brody that day she was clean, on the right path, and thinking of her family.
"What it comes down to is, I don't care about me," she said. "It's my baby and my brother. My brother will be put in a nursing home, and my son will be put in foster care."
Brody said she had intended to impose a prison term, but was swayed by what she heard.
Grigsby, the prosecutor, said Thursday that the defendant laid the groundwork for her lies by sending agents text messages saying she was in an accident. One even visited her house and saw a hospital bed (though the bed was actually for her father, recovering from surgery).
Harrell and her new lawyer, Daine L. Grey Jr., said the lies were born out of fear. Confined to a halfway house since the fall, Harrell promised Robreno that she was "doing really good in there" and hoped to continue.
"I don't want to hurt anybody anymore," she said.
But Robreno was skeptical. Though it was unclear whether she had continued cooperating with agents, the judge said her credibility as a witness was shot. And he noted that in the last 15 months, Harrell had tested positive for drugs 24 times, including as recently as last weekend.
"Frankly, I'm not sure the defendant really gets it, and this is intended to underline that fact," he said before imposing the sentence. "Committing crimes has consequences."