Advocate for victims gets award

LAWRENCEVILLE - It's hard to believe something positive could come of the brutal murders of a daughter and granddaughter, but one woman's personal tragedy has helped her become an advocate for victims' rights in Georgia.

Sheila Howell, a woman known for speaking her mind during the death penalty trial of convicted killer Wesley Harris, was honored Thursday with the Gwinnett County Victim's Voice Award.

Harris was convicted of murder in November in the shooting deaths of Howell's 27-year-old daughter, Whitney Land, and 2-year-old granddaughter, Jordan. Harris abducted the pair from a park in Clayton County on Nov. 8, 1999, and drove them to Gwinnett, where he shot them, placed their bodies in the trunk and set it ablaze.

Despite the compelling evidence at trial, two jurors held out against the death penalty in the sentencing phase. Harris was sentenced by default to life in prison without parole.

Seeing her loved ones' killer avoid the death penalty made the verdict seem hollow, Howell said.

"We were all so fried," Howell said of her family members. "That was not the outcome we thought it would be. ... We were shocked."

Howell said she keeps in touch with three jurors who were equally disturbed by the sentence.

Outraged at what she believes to be a miscarriage of justice, Howell is lending her support to a bill introduced this year in the Georgia Legislature. The bill would change the law to require a supermajority of jury votes to secure a death penalty instead of a unanimous verdict.

Although the bill got stuck in a committee this year, Howell and Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter hope it will gain enough momentum to be passed next year. Porter said he can envision Howell leading the fight to change Georgia law regarding the death penalty.

Before handing her the award plaque, Porter praised Howell's endurance through the six-year trial process fraught with delays and complications. He also applauded her tireless efforts to spur him on during the prosecution.

"Sometimes I didn't want to hear her voice, but it was always an exhortation to make me do better," Porter said. "We argued and we debated and we did a lot of things, but I saw a person who had been through an incredible loss and was moving toward a solution."