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Published: Sunday, August 1, 2010, 2:12 p.m.

Defense options limited for Colton Harris-Moore

SEATTLE -- There's little doubt among legal experts that Colton Harris-Moore's best bet to avoid a lengthy prison term is to mount a defense that highlights his troubled upbringing and plays down the bravado of his two years on the run.
That's already started.
His defense attorney, John Henry Browne, said on national television that the "Barefoot Bandit" isn't interested in making money from his story. Harris-Moore didn't have fun on the run, his lawyer said. He was lonely and scared.
Now, at 19, Harris-Moore could be facing years, if not decades, behind bars. Experts believe a trial -- if no plea agreement is reached -- is months away, at best.
Legal experts suggest that a successful defense likely will focus more on arguing for a reduced sentence than on challenging the facts in the dozens of crimes Harris-Moore is linked to.
"Very little of this will have to do with contesting the charges in conventional legal terms," said Robert Weisberg. He's a criminal law expert who teaches at Stanford Law School near Palo Alto, Calif.
A strong defense likely will present many mitigating factors, including Harris-Moore's reportedly tumultuous upbringing, Weisberg said.
Attorneys may play up Harris-Moore's narrative of a wild child who stole food from neighbors because he was hungry. They may argue that he was never given a chance at success, Weisberg said.
The arguments probably will not win acquittal, but could mean fewer years in prison, he said.
Browne also must combat the public perception that Harris-Moore publicized his wrong doing, said University of Washington Law School Assistant Professor Mary D. Fan. She's also a former federal prosecutor.
"(Browne) has to redress that impression," Fan said.
At least twice in the past, officials believe Harris-Moore played up the nickname he was given after reportedly running from a few crimes scenes without shoes.
The serial burglar is suspected of drawing oversized footprints at an Orcas Island grocery store. Police authenticated a note signed the "Barefoot Bandit" that was left along with cash at a veterinary clinic in southwest Washington.
Officials believe that Harris-Moore soaked up the national and international media coverage of his exploits during his years on the lam.
Fingerprints, blood, hair and other physical evidence links him to stolen airplanes, boats and burglaries, federal and state court documents allege.
He's a suspect in more than 80 police investigations in nine states and three countries. Harris-Moore is charged in federal court with flying a stolen plane from Idaho to Granite Falls last fall. He's also facing state charges in Island and San Juan counties and Nebraska.
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks recently re-filed 10 counts against Harris-Moore in Superior Court, pulling them out of the juvenile court system. Since the charges were originally filed, Harris-Moore became an adult.
"In a sense, when the evidence is so strong, a wise defense attorney would also start thinking about mitigating the sentence," Fan said.
Browne told reporters that Harris-Moore didn't enjoy his years on the run. Through his attorney, the notorious serial burglar urged others not to repeat his mistakes.
"We're almost getting a preview of a sentencing," Fan said. "The defense is already saying, 'Judge, we're not glorifying the commission of crimes.'"
Mitigating factors also could lead to jury nullification, Weisberg said. That's where a jury dismisses criminal charges despite overwhelming evidence to convict.
It's still not clear if Harris-Moore's case will even proceed to trial.
His attorney could try to negotiate a plea arrangement with federal prosecutors, experts said.
Once he's been adjudicated in federal court, he likely will face his first state prosecution in Coupeville, Banks said.
Banks said he's tentatively agreed with other Washington state prosecutors that Harris-Moore will return first to Island County before he faces state prosecution elsewhere in Washington.
Harris-Moore was arrested July 11 in the Bahamas. He was promptly deported to Miami and then extradited to Washington state where he's first facing federal prosecution. Prosecutors and defense attorneys just received the case and likely need time before they can proceed, Banks said.
It's not yet known how long it will be before Harris-Moore returns to the jail in Coupeville.
"I'm thinking it would be measured in months as opposed to weeks or days," he said.
Still, officials are beginning to plan for the return of Island County's infamous son.
The county complex in Coupeville has limited parking spaces and the two court rooms aren't capable of handling large crowds, Banks said.
"We're not quite sure what to expect from the national and even international media that's interested in Mr. Harris-Moore," he said.
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437; jholtz@heraldnet.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the university at which Robert Weisberg is a faculty member. He is on the faculty at Stanford University.
Story tags » CoupevilleProsecutionBurglary

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