PHENIX CITY - Montgomery lawyer Susan James, appointed Thursday to represent triple murder suspect Desmonte Leonard, said Thursday her client deserves a vigorous defense and will get it.
Lawyer Susan James says there are two sides to the story.
"I know he's innocent, and here's why: The law says he is innocent right now," James said. "I'm not making a personal opinion on that. He would be innocent all the way through the process, up to the jury room and until a jury of 12 decided he was guilty. He's innocent as we stand here today. That's not even considering the facts of the case.
"Everybody as opinions about any case like this. He is entitled to a good defense. Everybody is. That's what we plan to give him. "
Leonard is charged with the shooting deaths of former Auburn football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips and Auburn resident Demario Pitts. Current Auburn player Eric Mack was wounded, as were Xavier Martin and John Robertson, who remains at UAB Medical Center.
James, who was representing a murder suspect on trial in Phenix City, met reporters in front of the Russell County Justice Center. She cautioned that there are two sides to the story of what happened on a tragic Saturday night at University Heights Apartments in Auburn.
"It's like a lot of cases," James said. "A lot of people have opinions. People can see things a lot of different ways. A lot of people have motivation to get involved. Fortunately, this case should be the prime example to the world that our criminal justice system is a good system. If you took action on a person simply because somebody said something and they think it happened a certain way, when we pulled up in front of the federal courthouse we should have left him out in the street for somebody to deal with however they wanted to.
"Fortunately for him and every other criminal defendant in this country, that doesn't happen. He has a right to have his day in court. That's why you have lawyers."
A large manhunt was launched Saturday night that did not end until, with James' assistance, Leonard turned himself into U.S. Marshals on Tuesday night. He had his first court appearance Thursday in Lee County. After he was booked into the Lee County Jail, the decision was made to return him to the Montgomery County Jail in his hometown.
James said high tensions in Auburn led her to request the move.
"This case really isn't about football," James said. "This case certainly has some implications for Auburn University, but if you take football and football players out of the equation - I certainly am sympathetic with the victims, don't misunderstand - but when you take football out of the equation, this is a tragic incident where people were shot and lost their lives. That's the way we are approaching it.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the public that don't see that. They can't see that yet. There's potential for problems if he's there. We just felt like it would be more appropriate for him to be in a different facility."
More of what James had to say:
Because of high tensions and anger in and around Auburn, James said she will seek a change of venue for Leonard's trial.
"We need to get it out of Lee County. If it was a Tuscaloosa football player case, we'd want to get it out of Tuscaloosa. It has nothing to do with the citizens of Lee County. It's just that there is so much attention to it and so many people that may have the wrong perception here that we will certainly ask for a change of venue."
James and her investigator, Garrett Saucer, met Leonard at an undisclosed location outside of Montgomery and transported him to U.S. Marshals for a pre-arranged surrender. It was her first contact with Leonard. She says he was different than the impression she had gotten from coverage of the incident.
"We went way out of Montgomery to pick him up. About two exits down, talking to him for that long, I had said 'We are fine.' He was in the front seat. It was daylight and I said 'This isn't going to work. You have to get in the backseat.' We didn't if we would get stopped, if somebody would recognize him.
"We were sure somebody had leaked it. There were State Troopers everywhere and helicopters. I felt like the O.J. trail that he took in the white SUV. We were in a white car. I'm not a hero. I've been judging people for a long time. I worked in the prison system before I was a lawyer. I was more apprehensive when I first met him. As soon as Garrett searched him and I got him into the car and he began to talk, I felt totally comfortable."
James said Leonard didn't turn himself in earlier because he was afraid.
"There was tension in Lee County. There was tension as he was making his way out of Lee County. And I think just the whole scenario was obviously a stressful situation. Then you find out people are looking for you. Then you figure you're in trouble because you haven't turned yourself in and then it continues to escalate. I think after what was seen on TV in Montgomery, he really felt like he needed lawyer to help negotiate his surrender."
James, despite arranging his surrender, didn't know until Wednesday that she would represent Leonard.
"The family reached out to me to help negotiate a surrender. The family talked about retaining me. I said 'Quite frankly, I don't even want to discuss that now. We need to get him surrendered.' That's what we did."
As with most capital murder cases, a final resolution will take a long time, possibly as long as two years.
"Lee County's DA office is pretty efficient. I'm not sure how often they meet with the Grand Jury. They'll want to get their autopsies and get their forensics together. It's going to take a little bit of time.
It's too early to say just what James' defense will be. James said much remains to be investigated.
"We just don't show our hand this early. There is nothing to be gained by that. We know what his side of the story is. We want to make sure it is consistent with what our theory is and what the evidence is. It would be irresponsible for us to come forward now and tell you something about the facts of the case. I will continue to say there are two sides to this story. Apparently there is a rumor mill out there already about some of the things that went on. We will be exploring those scenarios."