Originally created 01/12/00

Jury to begin deliberations in Leslie trial



It started with a simple question eight days ago in Richmond County Superior Court -- "Who killed Lori Joe Hastings?" -- both sides asked the jury Tuesday.

After hearing legal instructions from the judge today, the jury will be asked to decide if Sajid F. Leslie, 29, is the person who set Ms. Hastings' car on fire at about 11 p.m. April 22 and burned her alive.

"They have railroaded Sajid," defense attorney Maureen Floyd told jurors in her closing argument. Mr. Leslie is charged with murder in Ms. Hastings' death.

Investigators and prosecutors neither found nor presented physical evidence to link Mr. Leslie to the crime, Ms. Floyd said. No eyewitness came to tell the jury he saw who killed Ms. Hastings in an isolated parking area off Regency Boulevard.

Three times Mr. Leslie explained to Richmond County sheriff's investigators where he was the night Ms. Hastings died and how he had injured his face, and each time he gave the same account, Ms. Floyd said. But detectives botched the investigation and let the real killer slip away, Ms. Floyd said.

"She left out so many things," Assistant District Attorney Kelly VanGelder told the jury as she began the prosecution's final argument after Ms. Floyd finished.

The defense wants jurors to forget that 2 1/2 months before Ms. Hastings' slaying Mr. Leslie was charged with assaulting her at gunpoint -- much like he did to another former girlfriend, Ms. VanGelder argued.

The defense didn't recall expert witnesses who testified that Mr. Leslie had burns on his face, and that his explanation about a carburetor backfire was impossible, the prosecutor said. And the defense didn't mention two alibi witnesses Mr. Leslie named who happened to be the names of characters in a book he was reading at the time, Ms. VanGelder said.

"He played a game with the investigators. He's playing a game with you," Ms. VanGelder told jurors. "He's sure nobody -- not you, not the state, not the investigators -- are smart enough to catch him."

To convict Mr. Leslie, jurors must not only find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but they also must determine there's no other reasonable explanation except that Mr. Leslie killed Ms. Hastings, defense and prosecuting attorneys agreed.

When a prosecutor's case is composed of circumstantial evidence -- without direct evidence such as an eyewitness or physical evidence tying a suspect to a crime -- "The proved facts shall not only be consistent with the hypothesis of guilt, but shall exclude every other reasonable hypothesis save that of the guilt of the accused," Georgia law states.

The defense team pointed to four other men -- each of whom testified during the trial -- as Ms. Hastings' killer. In her closing argument, Ms. Floyd conceded that one man, Janierol Smith, had a solid alibi -- telephone records revealing calls from his home to Ms. Hastings' at the time of her death.

But Ms. Floyd hammered on the other three witnesses.

She pointed to Ms. Hastings' last boyfriend, Varick Harris, arguing that prosecutors didn't bring in his time card to show he was working at the time of Ms. Hastings' death. And her ex-husband, Levon R. Joe Jr., threatened to burn a woman "as he did with Lori Hastings," Ms. Floyd said.

But the most scathing barbs Ms. Floyd were aimed at Dr. Gasnel Bryan, who treats patients at Aiken Regional Medical Centers where Ms. Hastings' worked.

Three days before her death, Ms. Floyd argued, Ms. Hastings talked to an investigator with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission where Ms. Hastings had filed a sexual harassment complaint naming Dr. Bryan and another physician.

Ms. Hastings said she wanted the investigator to know another woman who filed a complaint was dead -- just in case something happened to her, too, the witness testified.

"From the grave, Lori pointed to the doctors. But they were never suspects," Ms. Floyd argued.

Don't forget, the prosecutor told jurors, "Lori went voluntarily to meet the person who did this to her." If she was afraid of Dr. Bryan, would she have gone to meet him at 11 p.m. in a dark, isolated spot? Ms. VanGelder asked the jury.

Dr. Bryan testified he didn't know about Ms. Hastings' complaint until after her death, Ms. VanGelder said. As for the other three men painted as suspects, each had iron-clad alibis, she said.

The only alibi investigators couldn't corroborate was that given by Mr. Leslie, the prosecutor argued.

The most important witness was Ms. Hastings' 12-year-old son, Tony Green, Ms. VanGelder told the jury.

"He told you more than anyone else ... that that night just before his momma left, she got a page from that defendant," Ms. VanGelder said.

"There is only one reasonable explanation, ... he doused Lori Hastings with gasoline, and he set that car on fire. Go back there and tell him he's not as smart as he thought he was."

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.