News Column

Ammar Harris: Why a Big Spender Gets a Public Defender

April 30, 2013

When Ammar Harris appeared in a Las Vegas court for the first time, he wore shackles and jail-issued navy blue T-shirt and pants.

Judge Deborah J. Lippis asked Harris, the man accused of firing a gun while driving down the Las Vegas Strip, killing another driver and causing a fiery crash that killed two others, whether he had sufficient funds to hire a defense attorney. Harris murmured a barely audible "no, ma'am."

It was a decidedly different Harris than the public was introduced to when Metro Police first identified him as a suspect in the Feb. 21 crime.

Along with photos of Harris, whom authorities tracked down in Studio City, Calif., after a weeklong search, police released a video of Harris. In the video, which was originally uploaded in 2009 a man authorities say is Harris counts out $8,300 in $100 bills.

"I got another bag, but I think I proved my (expletive) point," he says at the end of the video.

Harris was active on Twitter and other social media sites, and he at least publicly projected affluence and easy access to large sums of money, driving luxury automobiles, planning elaborate, ostentatious birthday parties and offering to fly women across the country, seemingly on a whim.

On March 30, 2011, Harris posted a photo to a social media site that appeared to be an account alert from Chase Bank. The alert says the customer's available balance is $9,999,599.

So, how is it that Harris suddenly lacks the funds to pay for his own defense?

Criminal defendants have the right to an attorney, but there are measures in place to determine whether a suspect has the money to pay for his or her own defense.

In Nevada, someone is considered indigent automatically if they receive public aid such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, disability insurance or public housing, or earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

In 2008, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled defendants who do not immediately fall into those categories face additional "rigorous" screening to qualify for a public defender. Factors such as charges faced, monthly expenses and local rates for private attorneys are considered to determine whether defendants would face "a substantial hardship were they to seek to retain private counsel."

Harris marketed himself as a fashion photographer on a trade website and also worked in event promotion and management, according to his social media profiles and a former associate in Atlanta. Harris, who uses the nickname Jaiduh and also is known by the name Ammar Asim Faruq Harris, was arrested in 2010 in Las Vegas on charges of pandering, kidnapping, sexual assault and coercion. The charges later were dropped, but the witness re-emerged after Harris' arrest this year, and Harris was indicted last week on three counts of sexual assault and one count of robbery related to the 2010 accusations.

Harris refers to himself as AMG Lifestyle "management" on social media sites and even posted a photo of a business credit card in the name of AMG Lifestyle, with the caption "filing taxes on em (sic) lol." AMG Lifestyle is registered in Florida under the name Yenesis Alfonso, whom Metro Police identified as being in the vehicle with Harris during the shooting. No such business is registered in Nevada.

In March 2012, Harris circulated fliers on Twitter that advertised a birthday party for "Jaiduh" hosted by AMG Lifestyle that was scheduled to be on a boat off the coast of Florida and offered a $1,000 bikini contest.

However, no matter how Harris makes money, he is being held without bail and will not have any income going forward.

"Courts look at real assets: houses, vehicles, boats, things in his name," said Curtis Brown, chief deputy of the capital homicide unit in the Clark County Public Defender Office. "They look for things with real value in his name, and they can require you to sell assets to help pay for your defense. Now, working with cash is harder, and people's appearances aren't always reality."

Brown's office is not working on this case, and he only spoke generally on the issue of determining a defendant's financial wherewithal. The Clark County Public Defender Office had a conflict in representing Harris, and his defense has been assigned to the Special Public Defender's Office, which only handles murder cases.

A grand jury on Thursday returned an indictment against Harris, charging him with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, among other crimes stemming from the Feb. 21 shooting.

It is hard to pin down exactly how much Harris' defense will cost taxpayers, but this is certain: The bill will be much higher if the Clark County District Attorney's office seeks the death penalty. That decision will eventually be made by the district attorney's death penalty committee, which considers aggravating factors, whether a jury would impose the death penalty in the case, and whether a conviction is likely to stand up to appeal.

A study by UNLV criminal justice professor Terance Meithe released in February 2012 found that capital murder cases in Clark County on average cost $229,800 to defend, whereas murder cases in which the death penalty is not sought cost an average of $60,100. In Nevada, a defendant facing the death penalty is guaranteed two attorneys for defense.

In general, public and private defense attorneys surveyed agreed that a death penalty murder case costs about four times as much as a noncapital case.

"In a death penalty case, there are two attorneys, a variety of mental health experts, mitigation specialists, investigative specialists, and others who will be hired to research and investigate the background of the person. With this case, you are probably looking at an accident reconstruction investigation as well. It's costly for the experts," said Clark County assistant chief public defender Daren Richards, who is not representing Harris but also spoke generally on the process of appointing public defenders.

In a case of this magnitude, in which the accused could face life in prison or the death penalty, attorneys agreed the defendant typically tries to get the best attorney he can find. Private attorneys generally have more time to work on a case than a public defender who has less control of their workload.

"The defendant's actions usually tell you the real story," Brown said. "I believe he probably would've shopped for an attorney if he had the cash."

Harris is accused of shooting into a Maserati driven by Kenneth Cherry Jr. while driving north on the Las Vegas Strip in a Range Rover. Cherry and a passenger, Freddy Walters, were hit in the shooting, Metro Police said. Cherry's wounds caused him to lose control of the car, which ran a red light at Flamingo Road and crashed into a taxi. The impact caused the cab to explode.

Three people were killed and are listed as the victims in connection with the three first-degree murder counts: Cherry; the cab driver, Michael Boldon, 62, of Las Vegas; and cab passenger Sandra Sutton-Wasmund, 48, a businesswoman from Maple Valley, Wash. Walters survived and is the victim named in the indictment in connection with the attempted murder count.

Tehran Boldon, the younger brother of Michael Boldon, has attended every court hearing for Harris, including extradition hearings in California.

"I hope they punish him as much as this court can," Tehran Boldon said after Harris' initial Las Vegas appearance April 17, choking up. "He doesn't deserve to walk right now. He is an example of what is wrong with our society."

A reporter then asked Tehran Boldon about Harris' claim of not having enough money to pay for his own attorney.

"I'd expect him to claim he can't afford an attorney," Tehran Boldon said of the alleged shooter, whom he also called "callous" and a "coward."

"Of course, the taxpayers are going to have to foot this bill," he said. "But I pay taxes too."

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(c)2013 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.)

Visit the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.) at www.lasvegassun.com

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Source: Copyright Las Vegas Sun (NV) 2013


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