Leanna Harris, the mother of a toddler killed in a hot car tragedy, is feeling intense public scrutiny and judgment.
DEFENSE EXPERTS urge cautious comments over complete silence
KATHERYN HAYES TUCKER [email protected]
HELPING HIS CLIENT avoid criminal charges is the task of the attorney just retained to represent Leanna Harris, the wife of the man charged with murder and negligence in the death of their toddler in a hot car, according to fellow defense lawyers.
Criminal defense attorney Lawrence Zimmerman confirmed Thursday that he is representing Leanna Harris, but he said he cannot make any comments “at this time.”
“she’s a definite target—if not by law enforcement at least in the public eye,” said J. Scott Key of Miller & Key in McDonough, a defense attorney who’s tried cases all over the state. “Even if she’s never charged with a crime, she’s very much under a microscope.”
At this point, Key said, Zimmerman and his client need to be thinking carefully about every move she makes—from talking to the police to what she wears when she walks out her front door.
Leanna Harris literally came into sharp focus during the long probable cause hearing July 3 for her husband, Justin Ross Harris. He is being held without bond on charges of felony murder and
second-degree child cruelty. As a police detective testified to her husband’s computer research of death in hot cars and his sexting with a half-dozen women while their son was dying, Leanna Harris sat calm, dry-eyed and chewing gum, her image being broadcast on live television.
Although she hasn’t been charged, the detective testified to statements she made that police found suspicious. Upon arrival at the day care center on the afternoon of June 18 and learning her husband never dropped off 22-month-old Cooper Harris, her first response was, “Ross must have left him in the car.” The detective said she did not ask to see her child, but only her husband, who was being questioned by police. When the police “reunited” the couple in a room at the police station— thinking they were alone— she asked him, “Did you say too much?”
“If I was representing her, she would say nothing to the police without a grant of full immunity,” said Brian Steel. “Even an honest belief that you’re making a true statement may upon reflection may look like not a true statement. You can’t let your client get into that position.”
Steel is handling the appeal for Andrea Sneiderman, the widow who was released from prison last month after serving time for perjury after her former boss was convicted of killing her husband. She is seeking to overturn her felony convictions for perjury to clear her name.
Steel said it’s probably wise that both Zimmerman and H. Maddox Kilgore, the attorney for Ross Harris, have elected not to comment in the media.
Defense attorney Page Pate said he would use a different strategy. Pate applauded Zimmerman and Kilgore for consistency and didn’t disagree with their positions. But he said he would make general statements to media to support a belief in his client’s innocence.
“I think you need to make a public statement with a theory of defense,” said Pate. “At least respond to some of the damaging evidence to keep your client from being convicted in the media.”
While publicity can’t send the client to jail, it can chase away supporters and damage reputations, said Pate. He added he would say something like, “It’s early in the case. We don’t have all the evidence. There’s lots of circumstantial evidence. At the end of the day, I think everyone will realize he didn’t intend to do that.”
In any case, Leanna Harris has hired capable counsel in Zimmerman, said Pate, who added he’s known Zimmerman for 10 years. Zimmerman is a “hardworking young lawyer” who’s handled a lot of cases in Cobb and around metro Atlanta.
“He has handled some cases that have had media attention,” said Pate, “although nothing compared to what he’s about to experience.”
Zimmerman’s website, atlantanotguilty.com, says he received his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and his law degree in 1998 from the Roger Williams University school of law in Bristol, R.I.