Originally created 01/08/00

Defense points to friends



One of the men whom Sajid Leslie's defense attorneys want a jury to perceive as a prime suspect in Lori Hastings' death was working miles away at the time she burned to death, he testified Friday.

Ms. Hastings' boyfriend, Varick Harris, was also working the night of April 22, he testified. And a third man, Janierol Smith, a former boyfriend who described his and Ms. Hastings' relationship as a close friendship last spring, was repeatedly calling her home that night, he testified.

In the fifth day of Mr. Leslie's Richmond County Superior Court trial on murder and arson charges, the three men who shared a part in Ms. Hastings' life accounted for their whereabouts just after 11 p.m. April 22, when firefighters found Ms. Hastings' body in her burning vehicle in an isolated parking area off Regency Boulevard.

Mr. Leslie, 29, has pleaded not guilty to charges of felony murder, malice murder and arson. His trial continues Monday.

Prosecutors introduced records Friday corroborating that Levon R. Joe Jr. and Mr. Harris were working afternoon shifts April 22-23 and that telephone calls were placed from Mr. Smith's home to Ms. Hastings' North Augusta home six times from 9:56 to 11:49 p.m. April 22.

Mr. Harris, who in April was dating Ms. Hastings, 30, was also calling Ms. Hastings' home from a pay phone at work, trying to reach her, he testified. Before he left to go to work that afternoon, Ms. Hastings told him that her former boyfriend had called wanting to see her, but Ms. Hastings said she wasn't going to meet him, Mr. Harris testified.

"I didn't talk to her again," he said.

Mr. Harris testified Ms. Hastings never referred to the ex-boyfriend by name, but she had indicated she had dated him before Mr. Harris. According to previous court testimony, Ms. Hastings broke off her romantic relationship with Mr. Leslie last winter.

Mr. Smith testified he also kept trying to reach Ms. Hastings by phone and became increasingly perturbed, thinking she had just left her two young children home alone while she was out "running the street," he testified.

Mr. Joe, who had two children with Ms. Hastings before their divorce in 1995, testified Friday that he worked from 3 p.m to 12:20 a.m. the night his ex-wife was killed. On April 23, he learned that Ms. Hastings was feared dead when he went with his then-girlfriendto pay a utility bill in North Augusta, Mr. Joe testified.

Under cross-examination, Mr. Joe denied that he threatened his girlfriend by saying he would burn her up just as he had done to Ms. Hastings. It was the girlfriend who came up with that phrase during an argument, Mr. Joe testified.

Mr. Leslie's defense attorneys lost repeated arguments to Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. to question Mr. Joe as if he were the person on trial for Ms. Hastings' slaying and introduce evidence of domestic violence convictions.

Friday afternoon in the sixth motion for a mistrial by the defense, attorney Maureen Floyd loudly complained that Judge Brown was being unfair to the defense and demanded a mistrial. Assistant District Attorney Willie Saunders countered that court rules, not the judge, govern the legal ways witnesses, as opposed to criminal defendants, may be questioned at trial.

As Ms. Floyd interrupted the judge's response, he cautioned her that the issue had already been settled and that she was treading near a contempt-of-court citation.

"You want to take the edge off your voice when you talk to the court," Judge Brown said. "That's the final time I'm going to say that."

ReachSandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.