Harris sentenced to life in prison for double murder

LAWRENCEVILLE - Justice for 22-year-old Whitney Land and her 2-year-old daughter, Jordan, came six years to the day after they were brutally murdered.

Wesley Harris, 27, was sentenced Tuesday to spend life in prison without parole for gunning down the young mother and her daughter Nov. 8, 1999, stuffing their bodies into the trunk of a car and setting it on fire.

Jurors deliberated for a few hours Tuesday afternoon before it became evident they could not agree on sentencing. Ten jurors were in favor of the death penalty, while two held out for life in prison without parole, said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.

Superior Court Judge Richard T. Winegarden was bound by Georgia law to hand down a life term because the verdict was not unanimous.

Five days ago, the panel of seven men and five women found Harris guilty on two counts of murder, felony murder and false imprisonment, as well as arson, theft by taking and possession of a weapon during the commission of a felony.

Prosecutors said Harris abducted the pair from Panhandle Park in Clayton County and then drove their car to Duluth. He shot them each several times, stuffed their bodies in the trunk and burned the car, Porter said.

Porter was disappointed with the jury's decision. Porter said he spoke with several jurors who told him a black female juror voted against the death penalty based on race, not the facts of the case.

"This case justified the death penalty probably as much or more as any other case I've tried," Porter said. "I think for at least one of the holdouts, the vote was on racial lines, which sort of shakes my faith in the system as a whole. I've always been naive enough to believe our system is an engine to discover the truth. It is disappointing when things like this happen."

Defense attorney Christine Koehler was grateful to the jurors for enduring nine weeks of an emotionally charged trial.

"This was a long and difficult time for everybody involved," Koehler said. "As pleased as we are with the verdict, there's not really any winners here. It is a sad day for a lot of people."

Sheila Howell, the mother of Whitney and grandmother of Jordan, and one of her sons began yelling curses at Harris after the verdict was rendered. They had to be escorted out of the courtroom, Porter said.

On Friday, Howell read a written statement about the impact of the deaths on her family. Howell said she looked forward to a lifetime of memories with her daughter and granddaughter, but "I have been robbed of all that."

"There are foods I can't eat, restaurants I can't go to, places I can't visit because of my memories I have there with Whitney and Jordan," Howell said. "There are days I can't face the world because I have been denied the future that I dreamed about."

Harris never testified, but prosecutors during the trial presented a videotaped police interview in which he admitted burning the car but said, "I didn't kill nobody."