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Flower delivery turned murder

Victoria Corderi has a Dateline Court TV exclusive.
Lita Sullivan's mother, state Rep. Jo Ann McClinton, right, and father, Emory McClinton, left, react as a jury reads the verdict in the case against James Sullivan, for hiring a hit man to kill his socialite wife 19 years ago.Ric Feld / AP

It was an unremarkable January morning. Outside, it was cool and damp. Inside an elegant Atlanta home, one could fell the warmth of two old friends talking about the day ahead. Some time after 8 a.m., the doorbell rang.

It was a flower delivery—a delightful surprise, followed by moments later, terror.

Poppy Marable: I was confused.  Like are these really gunshots?

The delivery man fired a 9mm gun hidden by the flowers, then fled. 35-year-old Lita Sullivan would not live out the morning. 

The ruthless murder has haunted and obsessed her loving family for 19 long years.

Jo Ann McClinton, Lita’s mother: There is no closure as far as Lita McClinton is concerned.Emory McClinton, Lita’s father: This is just to make sure that there is justice.  Completed.

What started with gunshots and roses in 1987 has expanded into a saga of greed and deception, involving bizarre characters, stalled investigations, contentious court cases and a world-wide search for a fugitive. Through it all, Emory and Joanne McClinton have persisted in trying to bring to a close the case of their slain daughter—Lita, their first born.

Jo Ann McClinton: She was just very, very special to everybody.  But it is something about your first one. 

Lita grew up in a proper and elegant southern home.  She went on to Spelman college, where she met her best friend Poppy Marable.

Marable: She was the extrovert.  I was the introvert.  And so she had this charismatic personality. Victoria Corderi, Dateline correspondent: So, people were attracted to her?Marable: Yes, uh-huh, absolutely.

They were both political science majors, but Poppy says their first love was fashion.

Marable:  And we hoped to have a boutique some day or a small business.

After college, Lita began working at an upscale Atlanta boutique.  Where, in 1975, she met a customer who would change her life. She was 23. Jim Sullivan was eleven years older and charismatic.

Marable: He courted her as an older gentlemen could.  He had resources.Corderi: What was your first impression?Marable:  Jim can be charming.

But not everyone succumbed to those charms. Lita’s parents, the McClintons, say they found him brash and arrogant, and told their daughter they were concerned.

Emory McClinton: I said, “You know I don’t think it’s a good idea.”  And I gave my reasons.Corderi:  His age, his arrogance.Emory McClinton: And the difficulties that they would encounter socially.Corderi:  As an interracial couple.Emory McClinton: As an interracial couple.

And Sullivan was divorced with four children. But the McClinton they say they didn’t interfere, and Lita married Sullivan in December, 1976.  Poppy was her maid of honor.

Marable: I think you can tell on one of the wedding pictures where she’s just laughing and crying at the same time. She was really happy about being married.

The couple settled down to a comfortable life in Macon, Georgia. Sullivan ran a successful liquor distributorship he’d inherited, while Lita worked in a department store.  Seven years later, in 1983, after Sullivan sold his business, they traded up—way up: to ritzy Palm Beach Florida and a prestigious oceanfront mansion. Jim Sullivan became a regular on the town’s exclusive social circuit. They had the trappings of a glamorous life, but Lita’s friends and family say that she was miserable.

Corderi: For her, it was like a prison?Emory McClinton:  It was worse.Corderi:  It was worse?Emory McClinton:  Yes.

Because for all of his wealth, her family says Jim Sullivan was a skinflint when it came to his wife.

Corderi: She was always strapped?Emory McClinton:  Yeah. If he didn’t bring home napkins from Wendy’s, they didn’t have napkins.

But worse than his stinginess, they say, was Sullivan’s brazen infidelity.

Jo Ann McClinton: When you find blond hair in your bed  and Jim’s hair was dark then, obviously, you know, very—Corderi: So, in her own home?Jo Ann McClinton:  In her own home, yes.

Lita endured it, Poppy says, because of her traditional upbringing.

Marable: It was just assumed that you married.  You’re married forever.  You may have some challenges but you work through them.

But—not every challenge...

Jo Ann McClinton:  It was known that he would pick up prostitutes and that was the last straw for Lita. 

After eight and a half years of marriage Lita, then 33, finally decided to call it quits...

Lita’s friends say she was looking to start over, to find happiness in her home town. So she moved back to Atlanta, dove into charity work and even began dating again.  So when a flower deliveryman rang her doorbell on the morning of January 16, 1987, Lita had every reason to think it was a sign of great things to come.  She was wrong.

Poppy had spent the night at Lita’s and was with her three year old daughter when she heard the shots fired.

Marable: My daughter was in the bed.  I grabbed her out of the bed into the bathroom and then into the closet.Corderi:  Your maternal instinct took over—Marable: Yes. I was afraid to come out.  I didn’t know if the person was in the house.  I didn’t know if the person was coming upstairs.

Poppy says she surfaced when she heard the police in the house...

Marable: I asked if Lita was okay, if she was living.  And he said barely.  Because I knew she’d been shot.  I didn’t want to look.

Instead she frantically called Lita’s mother.

Jo Ann McClinton: I just remember Poppy screaming, “Lita’s been shot!  Lita’s been shot!”

Lita was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late.

Emory McClinton:  Well, the doctor came out—Jo Ann McClinton:  Immediately.Emory McClinton: -- immediately and told us that there was really no hope.

The brutal killing of 35-year-old Lita Sullivan disrupted the quiet of this upscale Atlanta neighborhood.  Immediately police began to try to piece together what happened, and why. 

One of the witnesses, a neighbor and friend of Lita’s told authorities he’d seen the gunman approach her door that morning.

Bob Christensen, neighbor and witness:  Our eyes kind of locked. I was going to ask him, “What are you doing here?”  And then I got a very bad feeling about the guy.

Major Welcome Harris was the lead investigator on the case. 

Corderi: Do you recall your first impressions? What were you thinking?Major. Harris: Well, one thing is obvious.  She was the target.  Now the next thing to me would be who might have wanted her dead. 

The primary evidence at the scene—a bullet, two 9mm bullet casings, a bloody nightgown, an unopened box of roses.

Harris: She never got to open the box.  The box had one single hole through the box. She might have even threw the box up.Corderi:  To protect herself?Harris: To protect herself. Could have been just a reflex.  Yeah.

Within a couple of days, investigators uncovered important information from a local florist who described the man who had come in that morning to buy roses, and another man who was waiting for him in the car.

Police drew up these composite sketches of three men, based on the descriptions from the florist and Lita’s neighbor. And there was something else authorities found out: Lita and her husband Jim were in the middle of a drawn-out divorce that had become a fierce battle over money. 

The McClintons say they knew who was behind the murder: Jim Sullivan.

Jo Ann McClinton: Emory called a friend of ours that was with the Atlanta police department and said, “This son of a bitch killed our daughter.”

Detective Harris says police questioned Jim Sullivan several times.

Harris: He didn’t have any idea who’d might of want to harm his wife.Corderi:  Did he seem concerned?Harris:  No. I didn’t see any evidence of any grief or anything. 

Sullivan had an iron-clad alibi:  he was in Palm Beach at the time of the murder.  But, police suspected he may have had a role because they uncovered phone records of some mysterious calls between a motel Atlanta and Sullivan’s palm beach home before and after the murder.

Corderi: You had witnesses that described the men.  The flowers.  You had the phone call.Harris: Yes ma’am.  We had to identify the men.  That’s the needle in the haystack.  We know they were there.  But who are they?  We felt like in theory that Sullivan was behind it, but how do we prove it? 

But Poppy wasn’t so convinced.  She couldn’t believe that Jim Sullivan—the same man who was her daughter’s godfather—would be capable of such a thing. 

Marable:  Jim had become a part of all our lives.  He was like a family member. I just couldn’t believe that he was evil enough to commit murder. 

With no gunman in custody, no murder weapon, the district attorney at the time decided not to press charges against Sullivan.

Then, in 1990, three years after Lita’s death, there was a bombshell from the woman who married Sullivan after Lita’s murder: they were now getting divorced and one day she stunned the courtroom.

She said Sullivan admitted to her that he’d planned and paid for Lita’s murder. Sullivan denied the accusation.  And because it had been made in the heat of a nasty divorce battle, authorities felt it was not enough to charge him.

But, a year later, the McClintons’ hopes were raised when a federal grand jury did indict Sullivan on a murder conspiracy charge stemming from the phone calls to and from his mansion at the time of Lita’s murder. But the judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence.  Jim Sullivan, Lita’s parents say, was getting away with murder.

Emory McClinton: It was very difficult because we felt that they were not pursuing the person that did this—James Sullivan.

So the McClintons tried another tactic—and hit Sullivan  where it hurts: financially. In 1994, in civil court, they filed a wrongful death suit, claiming Sullivan hired the hit man who posed as a flower delivery man and shot Lita.

Sullivan decided to defend himself, enabling him to cross-examine the McClintons.

Corderi: Of all these frustrations and indignities you’ve had to face, was having him question you on the stand—Emory McClinton:  That was the worst.Corderi: Because?Emory McClinton:   We knew what he had done.

The jury awarded the McClintons a $4 million judgment, but he never paid, claiming he was broke. The family says he hid his money and vowed to keep fighting.

The McClintons continued to press for justice, hoping for a break. Then in 1998, they got one—a tip led Atlanta police to North Carolina and a man who confessed Jim Sullivan paid him $25,000 to murder his wife. He later agreed to testify in exchange for a plea to voluntary manslaughter. Finally there was enough evidence to charge Jim Sullivan with the murder of his wife.  Trouble was, no one could find him.

By that time, 11 years after the murder, Sullivan was living in Costa Rica.  But when authorities went to his home, they discovered he’d fled.  Now Sullivan was a man on the run --  One of the FBI’s most wanted.

Sullivan reportedly traveled through Venezuela and Panama, but authorities had no solid leads.

Then, four years after he went missing, a tipster who saw the story on “America’s Most Wanted” led authorities to Thailand where Sullivan had been living in a beachfront condo with a girlfriend. He was extradited to the U.S. in 2004. After almost two decades, the McClintons thought justice was within reach.

Jo Ann McClinton:  We lost a daughter.  And Jim deliberately had our daughter killed.  Jim could not get away with this.

It is said that justice delayed is justice denied. But after so many years of frustration, Emory and Jo Ann McClinton would take any justice they could get.

Jo Ann McClinton: It was a goal that we could not allow him to kill our daughter and just walk the street.

On February 27, the McClintons and their family and friends entered the Atlanta courtroom where the man they believe engineered Lita Sullivan’s execution was to stand trial for murder. If convicted, Jim Sullivan could face the death penalty.

Victoria Corderi, Dateline correspondent: Lita’s parents have waited a long time for this day to come. Clint Rucker, prosecutor: Yes.Corderi: How much did that weigh on you?Rucker: A lot.

Lita Sullivan’s mother was the first witness called to the stand. Jo Ann McClinton’s emotions were still raw after all these years.

But prosecutors would need much more than the tears of a grieving mother—this was a largely circumstantial case. There was no direct evidence tying Jim Sullivan to the crime.  And it had been 19 years. How reliable are witnesses? Was there enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jim Sullivan took out a hit on his estranged wife?  Prosecutors would have to weave together a complex case, beginning with motive.

Prosecutors called Lita’s divorce lawyer and a friend of the couple’s to testify that Sullivan had been hell bent on limiting the amount of money Lita would win in court.  Prosecutors drew the jury’s attention to evidence that on its face, didn’t seem like much: a divorce court hearing date. But in context, they said, it was explosive.

The divorce hearing was scheduled for January 16th— the day Lita Sullivan was killed. That hearing would have decided whether Sullivan would have to pay his wife $250,000 dollars or a million. But now, Sullivan didn’t have to pay her a penny. And that, said prosecutors, tells you all you need to know about the motive.

Rucker: Greed.Corderi: Pure and simple.Rucker: Pure and simple greed.Corderi: Strong enough greed to commit murder?Rucker: Yes.

Prosecutors walked the jury through the morning of January 16.  Bob Christensen, Lita’s friend and next door neighbor, was outside and saw the man with the flowers approach Lita’s door.

Christensen testified he got a clear look at the man carrying flowers from about 15 feet away  and picked him out in a photo. The man in the picture he pointed to is named Tony Harwood.

Tony Harwood is the man who confessed back in 1998 to taking part in the murder, and pocketing a $25,000 dollar payoff from Jim Sullivan. He plea-bargained his way to a 20 year sentence in exchange for his testimony. Now, he was the state’s star witness, and prosecutors were about to see if that deal had been worth it. 

Rucker: Sometimes you have to make a deal with the devil in order to get at the truth.  What you don’t want to do is have the deal come back and bite you. 

Under careful questioning from the prosecutor, Tony Harwood told the jury about his first meeting with Jim Sullivan just two months before Lita was killed. He had worked for a moving company, and said he’d gone to Sullivan’s palm beach home to deliver a piano.

Lawyer (in court):  Can you tell the jurors how long total did you stay at the mansion of James Vincent Sullivan on November of 1986?Tony Harwood: Probably no more than 2 hours.

Somehow, in that short time, prosecutors say, the two men hatched a bizarre and deadly conspiracy.  Prosecutors then asked the former mover-turned-convicted felon, to turn into an actor, and play the role of Jim Sullivan as he asked to have his wife killed.

Harwood (playing Jim Sullivan): You know I’ve got this wife of mine up in Atlanta and she is just trying to take everything I’ve got. And I don’t know what to do about it. I need somebody to help me take care of my problem. Do you know anybody that can possibly take care of my problem for me? Because I need some help.

At first, Harwood testified, he thought Sullivan was joking.

Lawyer: When did you think Mr.Sullivan wasn’t joking anymore?Harwood: When I received $12,500 in the mail.

Harwood said Sullivan wanted Lita murdered before Christmas, but the plan got delayed until January, when he drove to Georgia with two friends  and checked into a Howard Johnson’s.  He said one of his friends went to Lita Sullivan’s doorstep before dawn, intending to shoot her. But there was a flaw in the plan.

Harwood: Especially a woman ain’t going to answer the door at 5:30 in the morning.

Harwood testified that he and his cohorts returned to Lita’s home three days later this time with those long stemmed pink roses to lure her to the door. After the deed was done, Harwood said he notified Sullivan by calling his Palm Beach home from a truck stop, and saying simply, “Merry Christmas.”

Harwood: His problem was supposed to be taken care of before Christmas.

Prosecutors knew they could not rely on the words of a convicted felon alone. So they introduced a registration card from Howard Johnson’s which an expert said matched Harwood’s handwriting perfectly, as well as those records of calls from that Howard Johnson’s and the truck stop nearby— both to Jim Sullivan’s Palm Beach home.

And the state produced another key witness to back up Harwood’s story— his former girlfriend, Belinda Trahan. She was the one who eventually led police to Harwood eight years ago.

Rucker: Belinda was the lynchpin. She was the person with the courage to come forward.

Trahan testified that she’d learned about the murder for hire scheme when Harwood returned from that trip to Palm Beach, after moving Sullivan’s piano.

Belinda Trahan: He told me that some white guy wanted to take out his black wife because she was going to divorce him and he didn’t want her to have anything.

Trahan said she didn’t believe Harwood and had assumed he was telling her a whopper of a lie to cover up an affair with another woman. She said Harwood did take a trip to Georgia in January but that he said he’d been unsuccessful because the woman wouldn’t answer the door. What she told Harwood next would play a role in Lita Sullivan’s murder.

Trahan: I said 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.

Later, Trahan testified, Harwood told her the hit had been carried out.

Trahan: He said the job was done.

She says she still didn’t believe him, so he drove her to a restaurant where they waited until a stranger appeared.

Trahan carefully reenacted the scene for the jury by sitting in a restaurant booth brought in by the prosecution. The stranger, she said slid a folded up newspaper across the table into Harwood’s hands.

Trahan: Then Tony put his hand on it and took it from there.

After they left, Trahan testified, Harwood opened the newspaper and took out an envelope stuffed with cash.

To emphasize that Trahan did indeed know the identity of that stranger who made the payoff, the prosecution asked her a question.

Prosecution: I want you to look around this courtroom and tell me if you see the person that you saw in that restaurant back in 1987?Trahan: Yes I do… He’s right there, he can’t even make eye contact.

Witnesses who fingered Jim Sullivan as the man behind the sordid contract killing of his wife, damning phone records and testimony that Sullivan would do anything to keep his wife from his money... but was it quite that simple?

Jim Sullivan’s lawyers knew they had a mound of incriminating evidence to overcome if they were going to spare their client from a murder conviction and perhaps a trip to Georgia’s death row. 

Victoria Corderi, Dateline correspondent: You were gonna have to attack, attack, attack.Ed Garland, defense lawyer: We were going to present what the weaknesses were in the case.

And there were weaknesses for the defense to exploit. There was no murder weapon, no financial records to back up the state’s claim that Jim Sullivan had paid $25,000 (part of it in a cashier’s checks) for the murder.

Garland: There’s not one shred of evidence that Mr. Sullivan ever paid anybody anything.

Defense lawyers Ed Garland and Don Samuel set out to cast the prosecution’s case in a new light. They disputed the claim that Jim and Lita Sullivan had an especially nasty split. Jim Sullivan’s divorce lawyer testified the breakup was not any more contentious than others he’d handled.

The core of the defense case was a full-on attack of two key prosecution witnesses: Tony Harwood, who had been identified as the hit man, and who had made a deal to testify after he was arrested; and his former girlfriend, Belinda Trahan, who first pointed the finger at Harwood.

Defense lawyers were eager to show that those witnesses hurt the prosecution case more than they helped.

When Tony Harwood was being questioned by the prosecutor, his story started to unravel. 

Prosecutor lawyer: Did you agree to participate into the death and the murder of Lita Sullivan?

After a long, long pause, Harwood— the man serving time for conspiring to kill Lita Sullivan—mustered a strange response.

Tony Harwood: To be honest, I would have to answer no.

Harwood seemed to tell two different stories on the stand.  And there were other problems, too: Remember how Belinda Trahan demonstrated how Sullivan slid that folded newspaper filled with payoff cash at the diner? Tony Harwood told a different story.

Harwood: Mr. Sullivan and I went into the restroom and he handed me the money.

And it got worse. Harwood admitted he had a history of lying to authorities about the case, and he acknowledged he’d once given his girlfriend a very different account of who had ordered him to kill.

Harwood: If I remember correctly, I told her the mafia was involved.Corderi: How would you characterize him as a witness?Don Samuel, defense lawyer: Totally lacking in credibility. Obliterated by the prosecution in their supposed direct examination of him. They ridiculed him, basically stole our script for the cross-examination.

Defense lawyers were so confident Harwood had self destructed on the stand, they decided not to cross examine him.

As for Belinda Trahan, the defense had a different strategy: Lawyers argued that her testimony was a well-rehearsed show. And they picked apart her story about driving to a restaurant and seeing Sullivan pay Harwood as they sat in a booth. Under tough grilling, she admitted she was not sure of the name or the location of the restaurant. Nor did she remember how long it took to get there.

Garland: You can’t say whether it’s one hour 6 hours or 20 hours? Is that right?Belinda Trahan:  That’s right.Corderi: The way you saw it was, and the way you presented it was here’s a woman who has total memory lapses about key things. Yet she remembers so perfectly this dramatization, this reenactment. She’s coached. And if she’s coached.Garland: You can’t trust her. There would be reasonable doubt.

The defense pointed out that while Trahan easily identified Jim Sullivan in the courtroom, she had struggled to ID him when she was shown a photo lineup eight years ago. The defense argued Trahan had taken so long to ID Sullivan because she’d never seen him before in her life.

And why would she lie to finger Sullivan?  One reason, the defense argued, was to get her hands on a hefty reward Lita’s parents had offered to find their daughter’s killer.

Lawyer: You understood that you couldn’t get the reward unless someone was convicted, didn’t you?Trahan: I guess so. Garland: Our analysis was that her credibility had been crippled.Corderi: After you got through with herGarland: After we finished all of the approaches to her.

Still, there were those incriminating phone calls to explain away— the ones between James Sullivan’s Palm Beach mansion and the Howard Johnson’s where Harwood stayed, and the call from the truck stop when Harwood said he wished Sullivan “Merry Christmas” because the job was done.

But as the defense points out, there’s no proof of what actually was said during those calls.

Defense lawyer: For all we know, Jim Sullivan was calling these people saying “Don’t kill my wife, don’t kill my wife, whatever you do don’t kill my wife. We just don’t know what was said.”

After eight days of testimony, both sides had one last chance to tie it all together for the jury in closing arguments.

Defense closing: Let’s look at the evidence, and when you look at the evidence, you have to look at the source of the evidence. The essential worthlessness of the testimony of Tony Harwood. If you’re going to uphold our system, you should reject everything that came out of his mouth.Corderi:  Were you gauging what was coming from the jury—Garland: Yeah.Corderi: When you were doing that.Garland: They were very attentive. They started taking notes during the defense arguments. And they hadn’t been taking notes in the prosecutor’s argument. There was a certain comfortable feeling that we were communicating.

The prosecution wrapped up with a literary flourish.

Prosecution attorney: I want to tell you something. It comes from a famous author. His name is Ernest Hemingway. He took a quote “For Whom The Bell Tolls.”

Prosecutor Clint Rucker rang a doorbell at the start of his closing. It was, he said, what Lita Sullivan must have heard that January morning.

Rucker: When I thought about the last few seconds of her life what I realized is she probably still had that ringing in her ear when the first bullet tore through her brain. Prosecution attorney: I’m gonna ask you through your verdict of guilty to each and every count to tell James Vincent Sullivan – “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” Tell him that “It tolls for thee, for you, for you.”Corderi: You were looking directly at him.Rucker: Uh-huh. Corderi: when you finally locked eyes what did you see? Rucker: Defiance. Defiance, even to the bitter end.

But was it the bitter end?

The jury of nine women and three men had been sequestered for almost two weeks, not allowed to discuss the case with each other. As they began deliberations, they say they carefully reviewed their notes, then took an informal vote.

This first vote was close to half and half. It was definitely not an open and shut case.

The jury would need to decide unanimously whether James Sullivan hired a hit man to kill his wife, Lita. They knew a guilty verdict could lead to the death penalty.

All three jurors we spoke to say Lita’s parents were like a silent witness in the courtroom every day.

Victoria Corderi, Dateline correspondent: They were sitting next to you the entire time. What did you feel?Debra, juror: Pain. Their pain. Their anger. Their heartbreak, their sorrow.

But still, the jury forewoman says, they were determined to put emotions aside and concentrate only on the evidence.

Juror: I tried not to think about, too much, their tragedy. Because I was most concerned that we get the verdict right.

It was a circumstantial case, requiring them to make certain leaps in judgment.

Adrienne, juror: They didn’t have any specific eye witnesses to actually see the murder take place, and because 19 years had passed, and there was so much conflicting information.

It was clear that the Sullivan’s divorce was bitter to the core.

Debra, juror: He was a control freak. He wanted her to have nothing.

But many divorces get ugly… was that enough motive to have someone murdered?

Nancy, juror: I thought he was a miserable human being. But you know you still have to say there are miserable human beings who do not hire hit men to eliminate their wives.

And they say there were problems with the credibility of the man who took part in the murder, the state’s star witness, Tony Harwood.

Juror: You could tell that, when he was asked questions, that he was lying… he’s definitely a loose cannon.                   

There were also credibility problems his former girlfriend Belinda Trahan, especially her testimony about the trip to the diner to meet Sullivan for the payoff.

Corderi: Did you find her memory problems troubling?Juror: Yeah, that was strange.Debra, juror:  She doesn’t know what car she was in. she doesn’t know where she was going.Adrienne, juror: What state she was in.Debra, juror: What road she was on. If it was day, if it was night.Corderi: Did you think that she was actually in that diner and that money changed hands?Nancy, juror: It’s a possibility. Debra, juror: But do we know for sure?

And as for that elaborate re-staging of the payoff in the courtroom?

Corderi: Did it help you envision it?  Or was it a turn off because it felt like a dramatic ploy?Juror: Ultimately, the jury did not take into consideration the testimony of Belinda Trahan or Tony Harwood.  So it was, in a way, a big to do about nothing.

As for the prosecution’s other dramatic touches, right up to closing argument, jurors said they found that entertaining, but ultimately insignificant.

Nancy, juror: There were moments I wanted to roll my eyes.  But I appreciate what the prosecution had to do.  They had the burden of proof.  They have to lay it on thick. 

But they say the prosecution did make a big impact with witness Bob Christiansen, Lita’s friend and neighbor who identified Harwood.

Juror: Bob Christiansen was very credible witness.Juror 2: Very credible.  He was very beneficial to the case.

And key evidence, they say, those phone records showing calls from Harwood’s motel room to and from Sullivan’s house days before the murder and a call from a  payphone to Sullivan’s house minutes after the murder — circumstantial perhaps, but impossible to dismiss.

Juror: I think the phone calls—were the one—that was the—the biggest impact for, I think, almost all of us. 

But even with seemingly incriminating details, they say, there was  little hard evidence.

Nancy, juror: I wish there had been more direct evidence, but there wasn’t.Corderi: What would have satisfied you? Nancy, juror: Well, bank records that Tony Harwood actually received—the sums that were alleged.Corderi: The cashier’s checks?Nancy, juror: Yes. They had nothing there.

Jurors say they methodically reviewed the evidence and took several votes, until they were of one mind.

Juror: It just became obvious that everybody felt fairly satisfied.

Finally, after almost five hours— and for some, 19 years— there was a verdict.

The jury found the defendant James Sullivan guilty of malice murder.

There were tears and the release of years of pent up emotion. But Jim Sullivan sat motionless as he had throughout the trial, listening as he was found guilty on all five counts.

It was the word the McClintons so desperately waited to hear after a long and tortuous road to justice.

Jo Ann McClinton, Lita Sullivan's mother: I heard the third one.  And it began to sink in.  Corderi: Did it sink in?McClintons: Yeah.

Emory McClinton, Lita Sullivan's father: I didn’t need to hear but one.

With the guilty verdict behind them, the jury would now have to decide how Jim Sullivan should pay for the murder of his estranged wife. 

Prosecutors argued that he deserved nothing less than the death penalty. They wanted jurors to imagine Lita’s last moments, gasping for life in a pool of her own blood  They called on Lita’s family to tell the jury about the painful impact of losing her.

It was Lita’s mother’s last opportunity to convey her personal agony to the jury. It was a sadness that became defiant.

Jo Ann McClinton: I have looked forward to this day for many years. Should I forgive him? I cannot. Should I forgive him? I will not.

The defense faced the task of steering the jury away from its sympathy for the family, and focusing instead on the need for mercy—life in prison instead of death.

Defense attorney: We reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst, for the most horrific and terrifying crimes imaginable, this is not a death penalty case.

Did Jim Sullivan deserve death, they asked, when the man who agreed to kill his wife only got a 20-year sentence? There were no close friends or family there to speak for James Sullivan. Instead, the defense focused on an impassioned plea to spare his life— referencing the Jewish Talmud, the tenets of Christianity, the dharma of Hinduism.

In the end, it was the defense’s direct appeal that most influenced the sentence. Jim Sullivan was spared the death penalty... but he will live out his days behind bars?

Jo Ann and Emory McClinton say they are satisfied, but still, nothing will ease the pain of losing their daughter.

Jo Ann McClinton: We’ve worked so hard to get him where he is.  But there is no closure.Emory McClinton: Because our daughter’s gone.

But the high life is over for Jim Sullivan, no more ocean breezes and seaside retreats—his long vacation from justice has come to an end.

Emory McClinton: We won the battle. He’s not gonna make a mockery of the courts anymore. It’s over, Jim.  Merry Christmas.

But the high life is over for Jim Sullivan, no more ocean breezes and seaside retreats—his long vacation from justice has come to an end.

Emory McClinton: We won the battle. He's not gonna make a mockery of the courts anymore. It’s over, Jim.  Merry Christmas.