ATLANTA – Georgia's top court Monday upheld the murder conviction of a millionaire for hiring an assassin posing as a flower delivery man to kill his 35-year-old socialite wife.
The Georgia Supreme Court's unanimous ruling rejected arguments for a new trial from attorneys representing James Sullivan, who is serving life in prison for paying a hit man $25,000 to gun down Lita Sullivan.
The appeal was a last-ditch attempt to toss a 2006 murder conviction against Sullivan. A man carrying a dozen long-stemmed roses shot Lita Sullivan on the doorstep of her Atlanta town house in 1987, on the day of a hearing to discuss property distribution in the couple's divorce.
Her death — and the 19-year effort to prosecute her killer — is one of the most high-profile cases in modern Atlanta history.
James Sullivan's attorneys had argued that a search warrant used to get crucial evidence from Sullivan's $5 million Florida mansion was full of omissions and half-truths and relied on testimony from a confidential informant who had been arrested 38 times. The search yielded a diary and financial documents used in Sullivan's trial.
Prosecutors defended the affidavit as "truthful and complete with the best information at the time." They said there was ample reason to search Sullivan's home even without the informant's testimony.
In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Harold Melton, the court rejected Sullivan's claims.
"This evidence was sufficient to enable the jury to determine that [the] defendant was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt," he wrote.
The case has gone on for more than two decades. In 1992, a federal judge dismissed charges that Sullivan violated interstate commerce laws by arranging his wife's murder through long-distance phone calls. Lita Sullivan's parents later won a $4 million wrongful death lawsuit — which they say still hasn't been paid — but James Sullivan wasn't charged with his wife's murder until 1998.
That was when Belinda Trahan told authorities Sullivan paid her ex-boyfriend, a trucker named Phillip Anthony Harwood, $25,000 to kill Lita Sullivan. Harwood was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to a lesser crime.
Sullivan, who fled to Thailand after hearing of Harwood's arrest, was arrested four years later after a local resident spotted him on "America's Most Wanted."