(NEW YORK) — Anthony Harris, who was convicted of killing his 5-year-old neighbor in 1999 at the age of 13 but had that conviction overturned in appeal, was a kind, hardworking student who could never be involved in a murder, Harris’ sixth-grade teacher told ABC News.
Jennie Arbogast, who taught Harris a year before Devan’s murder, spoke exclusively to ABC News’ “20/20” for the first time since Harris’ ordeal. She said she has feelings of regret over her community’s response to her former student’s arrest and wrongful conviction.
Devan’s body was found in a wooded area behind her home in New Philadelphia, Ohio, in 1998, and the police arrested and charged Harris with her murder. In 2000, an appeals court ruled that Harris’ taped confession, which was the key piece of evidence used to prosecute him, was coerced, and he was released from custody.
“I was picturing my student sitting in that conference or standing at my desk doing his best to answer the questions the way he would think I wanted him to answer them,” she told ABC News.
Arbogast, who was not asked to testify during Harris’ trial and only followed the proceedings, said there should have been more of a show of support for Harris.
“I felt like our mostly white community had let him down. I felt like Anthony should’ve had a parade of people behind him saying ‘absolutely not,'” she said.
Arbogast said she was disturbed by the reports that Harris was interrogated by an officer alone and confessed to the killing. Harris told ABC News that he felt immense pressure to confess so that he could go home.
Arbogast said Harris would “answer questions in a way that he would think the adult would want him to answer them.”
“I felt like they asked him leading questions and he was answering them in a way that he was being helpful,” she said. “I just felt like they didn’t even bother to find out what happened to that little girl.”
Arbogast said Harris’ case was still on her mind long after he was released from prison.
She wrote a letter to the editor of American Lawyer magazine in 2009 after it published a follow-up piece on the case where she expressed remorse for not doing more during Harris’ two years of legal battles.
“I never told Anthony that I thought him a good student and I believed in him. And I never for a moment believed him guilty, not for a second. As a teacher, I felt I failed him by not somehow reaching out to him and saying that I believed in him. Maybe if one person had, others would have, too,” she wrote.
Arbogast said she hoped those who wrongfully pegged Harris as a killer remember the trauma inflicted on him and express some remorse.
“But I hope that one day, he will not be seen by the naysayers at all,” she said. “I hope that history does his side of the story right.”
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