Wednesday, March 15, 2006 Print This | Email This     

Millionaire James Sullivan spared death penalty in wife's murder

By Emanuella Grinberg, Court TV

ATLANTA (Court TV) — A jury spared wealthy investor James Sullivan the death penalty and instead sentenced him to life in prison without parole for the 1987 murder-for-hire of his wife.

The same jury that found Sullivan, 64, guilty of malice murder in less than five hours Friday took longer to decide that he should receive a life sentence for hiring a hit man to kill his 35-year-old wife, Lita.

"This has been very a long and difficult, horrible, horrible story," Fulton Superior Court Judge John Goger told Lita Sullivan's parents during the hearing. "These lawyers did a very good job for you and for the memory of your daughter."

The couple, Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, said they were satisfied with the decision, and smiled as they hugged supporters in the courtroom following the hearing.

"We were hoping for one thing — for him to be found guilty," Emory McClinton told reporters. "He thought he could get away with it because he has funds."

Before announcing the verdict, the jury foreperson said they found that Sullivan directed another to commit the crime, an aggravating factor that could have enabled them to impose the death penalty.

Even so, a juror who spoke after the verdict said that, from the outset of deliberations, death was not a consideration for the panel.

"We thought life without parole would be enough," said juror Debra Klayman, citing religion as an influential force in the deliberations. "We didn't want to be the judge of someone else's life. We wanted God to do that."

Sullivan, who has shown little emotion throughout the trial, maintained his characteristic frown, though his lawyers said they were relieved by the sentence.

"We are very thankful that the jury did not impose the death penalty," said defense lawyer Ed Garland. "These people recognized that mercy is superior to vengeance."

Goger sentenced Sullivan to two additional sentences of 20 years for aggravated assault and burglary, to run consecutively.

"They [the jury] showed Jim Sullivan a measure of mercy which he was unwilling to show Lita," Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker said.

Lita Sullivan was shot to death Jan. 16, 1987, when she opened the door of her Buckhead home to a man posing as a flower deliveryman. She was due to attend a crucial hearing in the couple's acrimonious divorce the same day.

The accused hit man, Tony Harwood, was spared death in exchange his testimony against Sullivan and a guilty plea on a lesser charge. Although he told jurors that Sullivan paid him to carry out the hit, he ultimately denied pulling the trigger.

Sullivan, who was acquitted of federal charges related to the murder in 1992, was not indicted in Georgia until 1998, when Harwood's ex-girlfriend, Belinda Trahan, came forward with information about the arranged hit.

Sullivan was living in Costa Rica at the time, but eventually moved to Thailand, where he was apprehended in 2002, following a tip from a viewer of "America's Most Wanted."

He fought extradition for two years before finally being returned to the U.S. in 2004.

"They could have not brought in Tony Harwood or Belinda to the stand and we still could have made the decision without them," Klayman said of the pair's often contradictory testimony.

The juror said the most persuasive evidence came in the form of phone calls between Sullivan and the alleged hit man.

Phone records entered into evidence linked Sullivan to a hotel room where Harwood was staying on Jan. 13, 1987, the same day the alleged hit man made his first botched attempt at gaining entry into Lita's home.

Records also showed that less than an hour after the shooting, Sullivan received a collect call from a roadside pay phone outside Atlanta.

An alternate juror, Joy Manning, said she would have liked to hear from the defendant.

"I wanted to hear what he had to say. I thought he was a blank slate," Manning said. "I wanted to feel something for him."

After 19 years of seeking justice for her daughter, Georgia State Rep. Jo Ann McClinton said she looked forward to moving on with her life.

"This is just a small measure of closure for us because we'll never be able to see our daughter again," she said. "But it brings me some satisfaction to know that the man we've suspected all along is finally going to get what he deserves."

Full coverage of James Sullivan case