LAWRENCEVILLE - Wesley Harris was found guilty Friday in the brutal murder of a young mother and her 2-year-old daughter, but a jury still has to decide whether Harris will be sentenced to life in prison or death.
Harris was convicted of fatally shooting Whitney Land and her daughter Jordan on Nov. 8, 1999. A panel of seven men and five women reached a verdict after about four hours of deliberation.
"I was pleased with the verdict," said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. "Every step we take is one step closer to a conclusion of the case."
The sentencing phase of the trial began Friday afternoon with a plea from Porter, who said Harris should pay the ultimate price.
Prosecutors must clear one final hurdle to secure a death sentence. They must prove the murder was committed while Harris was engaged in another capital felony - in this case, kidnapping with bodily injury or armed robbery are both alleged.
Either that, or the state has to show the murder was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of the mind or an aggravated battery to the victim," Porter said.
Harris abducted Whitney and Jordan Land from Panhandle Park in Clayton County and then drove their car to Gwinnett County. There, he shot them each several times, stuffed their bodies in the trunk and burned the car, Porter said.
Christine Koehler, one of Harris' defense attorneys, asked the panel to "summon the strength to stop the killing."
"Wesley Harris is a human being who has value and who has worth to the people who love him," Koehler said.
A mother's grief
There were few dry eyes in the courtroom when Sheila Howell, the mother of Whitney and grandmother of Jordan, took the stand to read a written statement about the impact the deaths had on the family. The petite blonde was dressed in a black turtleneck and gray suit jacket. Her voice was measured as she tried to maintain composure.
Howell told jurors that her husband, Joey, died 14 months after the slayings of complications from diabetes. Whitney's two brothers are forever without a sister, and Howell said she misses her best friend, Whitney, and her precious granddaughter. Ever since Jordan and Whitney died six years ago, family gatherings have "all but stopped,"
"Now holidays are terrible. Birthdays are worse," Howell said.
"Whitney and Jordan are gone, but their birthdays still come. They will never get older than 22 and 2. I can never get used to strangers asking if I have children. I always say yes, I have three. They ask their ages and I always say what they would have been."
One female juror sobbed openly, and at least three others cried as the statement was read.
More testimony is expected to begin Monday for the defense, which has a list of about 20 potential witnesses to testify about Harris. The jury may begin deliberating about the sentence Monday or Tuesday, Porter said.