SAN FRANCISCO — The mother accused of tossing her three small sons to their deaths in frigid San Francisco Bay pleaded not guilty Friday to murder and assault charges with a special circumstance of multiple homicide that could make her subject to the death penalty.
Lashuan Harris, 23, of Oakland shuffled into San Francisco Superior Court wearing a red jumpsuit -- the color used to denote at-risk inmates. She held her hand to her face throughout the proceeding and uttered a faint "yes" when asked if she agreed to waive her right to a speedy trial.
Teresa Caffese, chief attorney of the San Francisco public defender's office, later confirmed that Harris was on suicide watch in a security cell and under medical treatment for her mental condition. She declined to elaborate on the young mother's state of mind.
"It's too much of a tragedy right now to capture in words," said Caffese, who will return to court Friday to request bail.
San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris also acknowledged the tragedy, which has captured worldwide attention, but said the focus belonged on the boys, ages 6, 2 and 16 months.
"This is a case involving three innocent children who lost their lives, not because of any natural accident but because they were killed," Kamala Harris said. "The victims here are the three children."
Family members of Lashuan Harris said she was a diagnosed schizophrenic who had not been taking her medication recently. She said Wednesday morning that she would feed the children "to the sharks," but relatives did not believe she would harm the boys, on whom they say she doted.
According to officials, Harris took the children to the end of picturesque Pier 7 near San Francisco's Ferry Building at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, stripped off their clothes and tossed them into the water.
A witness dialed 911 and by the time police and fire officials responded four minutes later, Harris was pushing an empty stroller down the pier toward land.
The body of Taronta Greeley Jr., 2, known by family members as "T.J.," washed up on a beach late Wednesday. Treyshaun Harris, 6, and Joshoa Greeley, 16 months, remain missing. An intense recovery effort continued Friday involving the U.S. Coast Guard, San Francisco police and fire departments, port officials and sheriff's deputies from three counties.
Visitors trickled past the crime scene Friday to pay their respects as commentators across the country weighed in on the crisis of mental illness and the debate over forced medication.
The triple homicide charges could make Harris subject to the death penalty, a rare and controversial occurrence in liberal San Francisco. Dist. Atty. Harris has made her opposition to the death penalty clear but vowed last year to review the facts of each case.
She said Friday that she had not yet ruled it out. She acknowledged, however, that the defendant's mental illness may be a factor. "It's potentially an issue in this case, but we'll see if it's an actual issue," she said.
Her office planned to fight any attempt at bail.
"This woman should not be on the streets," Kamala Harris said.