Harris sobs on first day of testimony

LAWRENCEVILLE - Opening day in the death penalty trial for a Jonesboro man got off to a tumultuous start on Friday when the defendant began hyperventilating and had to be assisted out of the courtroom.

Well-groomed and dressed in a green button-down shirt and slacks, 27-year-old Wesley Harris sat quietly through opening statements and initial testimony Friday afternoon. Then at about 4 p.m., shortly after the jury was excused so attorneys on both sides could discuss details of a witness' testimony, Harris broke down.

He started breathing heavily and doubled over in his chair. Two deputies led him out of the courtroom as he gasped and sobbed. Faint sounds of distressed moaning trickled into the courtroom as deputies laid Harris on the floor in a holding cell and administered aid.

In the end, Harris did not require medical attention, said Stacey Kelley, spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department. He was taken back to the Gwinnett County Detention Center. The trial was set to resume on Monday morning.

The outburst capped off an emotional day in which at least one juror cried during opening statements.

Prosecutor John Melvin described in lurid detail the final moments in the lives of 22-year-old Whitney Land and her 2-year-old daughter, Jordan, on Nov. 8, 1999. Police believe Harris confronted Land and her daughter at Panhandle Park in Clayton County, forced them into their car at gunpoint and drove them to Gwinnett.

At some point during the journey northward, Harris shot them multiple times, stuffed their bodies in the trunk of a car and set it ablaze at a Duluth water treatment plant, Melvin said. Prosecutors said the slayings occurred in Gwinnett because several 911 phone calls were received from Land's phone in the area of Pleasant Hill Road.

The state plans to call 40 witnesses, including one of Harris' friends who allegedly helped him burn the car after Harris called him using Land's cell phone.

Defense attorney Johnny Moore said Harris is innocent. Moore also called the venue for the trial into question and asked the jury not to consider the murder charges because he said the shootings probably happened in Clayton County.

"We believe the evidence is not going to show that he killed these people," Moore said.