Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lita McClinton Sullivan Murder Case

Sullivan's Trial

Sullivan's trial began in February 2006, 19 years after Lita's gruesome murder. The prosecution team, led by Fulton County District Attorney Sheila Ross, contended in her opening statements that Sullivan hired North Carolina truck driver Philip Harwood to gun down his wife rather than "cede a penny" to her in their divorce settlement, Grinberg reported for Court TV. Ross further declared that the jurors and alternates, 13 women and 3 men, would hear Harwood's testimony supporting the prosecution's case, including the admission of his involvement in the crime and of his calling Sullivan to tell him that the murder hit was a success. Contrariwise, the defense team, headed by attorney Don Samuel promised the jury that he would prove that Harwood's testimony was riddled with inconsistencies, demolishing the prosecution's case.

Jim Sullivan
Jim Sullivan

One of the witnesses who took the stand early in the prosecution's presentation of its case was one of Sullivan's friends retired administrative judge Edd Wheeler who told the court that prior to Lita's murder Sullivan said he would, "sooner practice 'scorched earth tactics" than give into the alimony payments his wife was requesting. Wheeler, however, testified that he didn't believe the comment meant that Sullivan would harm Lita physically in any way.

Defense Attorney Don Samuel
Defense Attorney Don Samuel

Lita's neighbor Robert Christianson then testified that a couple days before the murder Sullivan had made a suspicious call to him asking if he had seen any unusual activity around Lita's house. The call struck Christianson as "weird" because he rarely talked with Sullivan. When Lita was gunned down three days later, Christianson said that he made eye contact with the gunman, whom he believed had been hired by Sullivan.

Numerous witnesses testified in the course of the prosecution's case, but the two who made the greatest impact were the prosecution's star witnesses, Harwood and his former girlfriend, Belinda Trahan. Trahan told jurors that she and Harwood had met Sullivan at a restaurant and that the millionaire had requested a hit job on his wife in exchange for cash. She said that she had not told the authorities because she had feared for her and her son's life. Trahan testified that Harwood had been abusive to her and had said he would kill her is she said anything about the murder-for-hire.

Then Harwood took the stand and indeed lived up to the defense's contention that the truck driver was unreliable. Grinberg reported that less than 10 minutes into Harwood's testimony he "emerged as a wild card for both the defense and the state, implicating Sullivan while denying being the shooter." He claimed that the real shooter was a bartender named John, whom he had enlisted to help with the hit. Harwood insisted that during the shooting he had been sitting in the car near Lita's house. Not sure which way Harwood would blow when their opportunity came to question him, the defense decided it was in their best interest not to cross-examine him. After the testimony of seven witnesses, the prosecution rested its case.

The defense's case would be considerably shorter. Its hour-long case, "consisted of just two witnesses, one to impeach the credibility of the prosecution's star witness and another to refute the suggestion that Sullivan's behavior around the time of the killing implicates him in the plot," Grinberg reported. The jury then began deliberations on March 10, 2006. It took less than five hours to find Sullivan guilty of murder. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole. Superior Court Judge John J. Goger said at Sullivan's sentence that the entire case from beginning to end "was a very long, difficult, horrible story." Many were relieved that it had finally come to an end.

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