Video: Socialite Murder Case

updated 3/9/2006 11:24:42 AM ET 2006-03-09T16:24:42

James Sullivan is on trial for the murder of his wife Lita Sullivan almost 20 years ago.   Phillip Anthony Harwood, the hit man Sullivan is accused of hiring to kill her, was in prison for the murder, when he received a plea deal for agreeing to  testify against Sullivan.  Prosecutors are arguing that Sullivan had his wife killed to avoid losing up to $1 million in their divorce settlement.   

However, when Harwood finally took the stand, he changed his story and denied he did it.  The prosecution’s key witness is claiming the first time he saw the victim was on the news.

Former Georgia prosecutor, B.J. Bernstein and criminal defense attorney, Michelle Suskauer joined 'The Abram’s Report’ to discuss the new developments in the case.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

DAN ABRAMS, HOST, 'THE ABRAMS REPORT’:  All right, B.J., this guy supposedly makes a plea deal.  I assume his plea deal is going to be thrown out now, right?

B.J. BERNSTEIN, FORMER GEORGIA PROSECUTOR:  Well it's not necessarily so in Georgia and this is a big difference between the federal system and the state system.  Normally if there would be a plea in the federal system you'd have something over his head.  But it's a done deal in Georgia now.

ABRAMS:  So there's nothing they can do.  So he's now saying I didn't do it, and the deal is done? 

BERNSTEIN:  That's correct. 

ABRAMS:  Michelle, what do you make of this? 

MICHELLE SUSKAUER, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY:  Yes.  Well, you know, this guy obviously is not going to have a whole lot of credibility before this jury, because he already pled to it.  He already said that he did it and in exchange for reduction of his sentence.  So I don't think it's going to fatally hurt the prosecution in this case.  I think that along with all the other evidence, I think it's still going to be a real strong case against him. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  B.J., so this guy is still saying—the guy is sitting on trial there was looking for someone to kill his wife.  I was involved in it, I took the money, but I didn't pull the trigger.  How bad is that for the prosecutors? 

BERNSTEIN:  It's not great, but there are two things they are going to be able to do.  One is you're going to argue really hard to the jury, that anybody who is a hit man is never going to be the type of person to be truthful on every account, and that his initial telling of them when he entered his plea under oath and the fact that he even agreed to go to prison for that period of time indicates that he knew he was directly involved.  Then the second part of it is, is his girlfriend, who has been a key witness who was on the witness stand for two days, and went in to today a little bit, and she extremely clear about him accepting money and being there when part of the transaction was going on between Sullivan and the triggerman, Harwood. 

ABRAMS:  Well in fact, she even says that it was her idea to get flowers, that the hit man allegedly shows up at the door holding flowers, so in an effort to get Lita to answer the door, when she sees someone with flowers that she might answer the door, and here's what the girlfriend, the hit man's girlfriend said about that. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BELINDA TRAHAN, ALLEGED HIT MAN'S FORMER GIRLFRIEND:  Anyone knows that if you wanted to get a woman to answer the door, all you would have to do is take flowers to the door. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  B.J., was she charged in this case? 

BERNSTEIN:  I don't believe she was. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.

BERNSTEIN:  And you know she’s part of the reason being is she was the break in this case.  It wasn't like Harwood went to them first.  She actually went to authorities back in '98.  Now the defense really tried to shake her up this afternoon and tried to say oh, you're just confusing this by the high media coverage, because this case has been getting a lot of attention in Atlanta, but she was really strong and clear back to them, no, I know what you're trying to do to me, I know what you're trying to say, but I am absolutely sure that the person we sat down with was Sullivan. 

ABRAMS:  Because Michele, without the hit man and his girlfriend, the prosecutors didn't have a lot.  In fact for a long time they suspected that he was involved but they couldn't prove it. 

SUSKAUER:  That's absolutely right.  Certainly right away he was the prime suspect but it was because this woman, Trahan, came in, I think it was about 11 years later and finally showed up and that was really the break in the case.  She is a crucial, crucial witness and that's why the defense spent so much time cross-examining her, trying to pick her apart with different inconsistencies, and, you know, there's a problem, as to her explanation as to why it took her so long and I think what they're trying to say is that it's because of that pretrial publicity, after the murder.

ABRAMS:  What's interesting is that the alleged hit man, I'm calling him alleged hit man I guess now because he's denying it, but I guess you're still the hit man if you take money, if you kill someone and you're involved in it. 

This is what the hit man had to say about the flowers, because he's admitting that he bought them. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HARWOOD:  Got the flowers and got back in the car and he drove down the street and parked and he took the flowers and went into the condo and I heard two shots and here he come running back, and I drove off. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  B.J., we don't know who the he is though, right?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, he's now he's backing off that the he is somebody you know who is with him, but I think the other real interesting thing is there was some testimony earlier on today where a person came and testified that ties Harwood helping move items to Sullivan's house down in Palm Beach, so you get someone who's completely independent of the case putting those two together and you got to remember, this is a man who testimony has said he is worth $5.5 million at that point, you know, and you're hanging out in Palm Beach society, then how is it that you're even associated, friends with, connected to, phone calls from  someone like Harwood unless you're up to something wrong.

ABRAMS:  Yes.  You know it seems that all these people who want to kill someone that they love seem to find the, you know guy that worked for them somehow or I guess Robert Blake went and tried to solicit a stuntman according to them. 

SUSKAUER:  He was found not guilty though. 

ABRAMS:  Yes, except not by a civil jury. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.

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