LAWRENCEVILLE - Sheila Howell waited for her day in court for six years.
She figured that the victim impact portion of the death penalty trial would be her chance to face down convicted killer Wesley Harris, who on Nov. 8, 1999, stole her dreams of a future with her daughter and granddaughter with the squeeze of a trigger.
Howell had so many emotions about the slaying of her 27-year-old daughter, Whitney Land, and her 2-year-old granddaughter, Jordan. She wrote them down carefully in a victim impact statement to be read for the jury. She tried to convey what the horrific murders had done to her, and how they had torn apart her family.
But before she could read the statement in court earlier this month, Howell said her words were butchered by defense attorneys. In four different pretrial hearings leading up to the trial, they cut the statement down to half its initial length and changed the wording because they feared it would be too inflammatory.
"I find it unbelievable in a death penalty case that the defense can critique and change your victim impact statement until it's not your statement in the end," Howell said.
Howell said the way she was treated leading up to that day and during her victim impact testimony was only one of the ways the judicial system failed her, even revictimized her, when she was at her most vulnerable. Her experiences have prompted her to consider becoming an advocate for improving victims rights in Georgia.
"I just think that the victims really don't have all the rights," Howell said. "The murderers have all the rights. Their rights are protected so much."
For one thing, Howell wants to lobby for a change in the state law that requires a unanimous vote by a jury to secure a death sentence. Harris was found guilty on Nov. 4 of kidnapping Whitney and Jordan Land from a park in Jonesboro and driving them to Gwinnett before shooting them. To conceal the slayings, Harris stuffed the bodies in the trunk of a car and set it ablaze.
But in the sentencing phase of the trial, two out of 12 jurors held out against the death penalty. Without a unanimous verdict, the judge was required by Georgia law to sentence Harris to life in prison without parole. By contrast, in several other states a supermajority of juror votes is sufficient for a death penalty conviction.
Howell spoke out for the first time this week about the hardships she experienced to help publicize this year's annual Candlelight Vigil hosted by the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office. The vigil honors crime victims and their families. Now that her ordeal has ended, Howell said she wants to help support others who are going through a similar heartache.
The vigil will be held at
7 p.m. in the atrium of the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville.
Howell has high praise for the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office, which provided support during a difficult time.
"They were so wonderful," she said.
But the way Howell said a judge treated her caused undue strain on the woman who was already at a breaking point.
Howell was required to read her victim impact statement once from the witness stand before the jury came in the courtroom. Superior Court Judge Richard T. Winegarden wanted to make sure she would be able to maintain composure. He warned that if Howell cried or showed too much emotion, the statement would not be admitted.
Even when Howell wasn't testifying, her family and friends were told by Winegarden that they could not cry or become emotional in the courtroom.
"From the first day we walked into the courtroom, he was hideous to us," Howell recalled. "He was just plain rude. I didn't feel like Whitney and Jordan were real important."
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said policing the display of emotion in the courtroom is handled differently by each judge. Judges have to ensure that there is no overwhelming display on either side that could prejudice the jury's verdict. But even Porter felt the restrictions imposed by Winegarden were unnecessarily stern.
"Winegarden is particularly uncomfortable with any expression of emotion by any party in the courtroom," Porter said. "It is the most restrictive environment I've experienced."
Howell was also disappointed because she was the only person to testify on behalf of the victims' family during the sentencing phase of the trial. Defense attorneys were permitted to call witness after witness to the stand to plead for Harris' life.
While some say Georgia should improve victim rights, the state is already ahead of the curve when compared with the rest of the nation, said Stan Hall, director of the Victim Witness program for the district attorney's office. A lobbying organization for victims, the National Association of Victims Assistance (NOVA), hopes to pass a constitutional amendment that would make the Victims' Bill of Rights a national mandate. Georgia already has a similar law on the books.
Hall said national bill would be similar - giving equal strikes to the prosecution and defense during jury selection, requiring victims to be notified of trial and hearing dates and guaranteeing compensation to victims by offenders convicted of theft-related crimes after they are released from incarceration.