ATLANTA -- A jury convicted a Boston native yesterday of murder for hiring a hit man to kill his socialite wife 19 years ago because he feared losing money and a Florida mansion in the couple's divorce, capping a salacious trial in which the state's star witness flip-flopped on the stand and denied pulling the trigger.
The jury of three men and nine women took less than five hours to find millionaire James Sullivan guilty of arranging the fatal shooting of Lita Sullivan, his 35-year-old second wife, on Jan. 16, 1987.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. A sentencing hearing will be held Monday.
The victim was shot to death on the doorstep of her Atlanta town house by a man carrying a dozen long-stemmed pink roses. The murder occurred the same day a hearing was scheduled to discuss property distribution in the divorce.
Sullivan was convicted of malice murder, felony murder, burglary, and two counts of aggravated assault. At sentencing, the jury will have the option of sentencing Sullivan to death, to life in prison without parole, or to life in prison with parole.
Sullivan had no reaction when the verdict was read. The victim's mother, state Representative Jo Ann McClinton, cried.
''I'm just happy and elated that finally, after 19 years, the person we knew was guilty, our courts have found him guilty," McClinton said. ''It's been a long time coming."
Sullivan's lawyers went immediately into a holding cell to talk with the defendant. Afterward, defense attorney Don Samuel said he will appeal the verdict. ''It takes a lot out of you to lose a murder trial, particularly a death penalty trial," he said.
Prosecutor Clint Rucker said Sullivan's lack of emotion as the verdict was read spoke clearly.
''I think it's true to form -- a leopard doesn't necessarily change his spots," Rucker said.
Sullivan, 64, once one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives, was captured in Thailand in 2002, four years after taking off on an intercontinental run around the time he was indicted on state murder charges in 1998.
He was extradited to the United States in 2004 to face a second trial on charges stemming from the murder. Federal charges that accused him of interstate use of a telephone to set up the murder were thrown out at trial in 1992. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that double jeopardy did not prevent Sullivan from being tried again in state court.
Prosecutors said Sullivan paid Phillip Harwood, a trucker who once moved some furniture for him to Palm Beach, $25,000 to kill his wife. Harwood, 55, of Albemarle, N.C., is serving a 20-year sentence for manslaughter after pleading guilty and admitting he killed Mrs. Sullivan, but on the stand Monday he denied being the triggerman.
Defense lawyer Ed Garland said in his closing argument yesterday that Harwood's testimony was a mockery and said that all prosecutors presented was circumstantial evidence.
Prosecutors acknowledged that there were doubts about some of Harwood's testimony, but they asked jurors to look past that and focus on the pieces of truth they said Harwood was telling.