Suspect in Ariz. highway shootings pleads not guilty

PHOENIX — A man charged with carrying out several recent shootings along a major highway in Arizona pleaded not guilty on Thursday to 15 felonies including drive-by shooting and aggravated assault, a court spokesman said.

Leslie Merritt Jr, 21, entered the plea before a commissioner in Maricopa County Superior Court in the first four of more than 10 possible shootings that began in late August along a stretch of Interstate 10 that runs through the Phoenix area.

A 13-year-old girl with a slight cut to her ear was the only person injured in the attacks.

Merritt was arrested without incident on Sept. 18 while entering a Wal-Mart store after police said they were able to forensically link four of the shootings to his handgun, which was found later by investigators at a local pawn store.

He was charged last week with 15 felony counts, including drive-by shooting, aggravated assault, unlawful discharge of a firearm, disorderly conduct and endangerment.

Merritt pleaded not guilty to the charges at the hearing on Thursday, a court representative said on Twitter.

Merritt’s attorney, Jason Lamm, said he has serious questions about the police investigation and believes his client may have been made a scapegoat for troubling crimes that kept motorists on edge for weeks.

“We plan on trying this case based on objective facts and evidence, not gut feelings, emotion and public fear,” Lamm said in an interview.

He said there may have been “a rush to judgment” by authorities, pointing to a tweet by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey breaking the news that Merritt had been arrested.

“We got him!” read the start of the tweet on Sept. 18.

The investigation into the shootings continues, but no one has been arrested in the other attacks.

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