It took nearly five hours Wednesday for a jury to decide the only reasonable explanation for Lori Joe Hastings' terrifying death was that Sajid Leslie murdered her.
Just before 5 p.m., at the conclusion of an eight-day trial, the Richmond County Superior Court jury convicted Mr. Leslie of felony murder, malice murder and arson for the April 22 burning death of his 30-year-old ex-girlfriend.
"We can put Lori Hastings' spirit to rest now, we really can," said the lead investigator, Richmond County Sheriff's Sgt. John Gray, his eyes red and voice hoarse from holding back tears. The 20-year veteran violent crimes investigator never knew Ms. Hastings in life, but her death and his worry that Mr. Leslie might be acquitted gnawed at him as few cases have in his career, he said last week.
There was no physical evidence to tie Mr. Leslie to the murder. No eyewitness came foward. Mr. Leslie had an answer for everything: explanations for the burns to his face and an "alibi" of being at dogfights the night firefighters discovered Ms. Hastings' body in her burning car, parked in an isolated parking area off Regency Boulevard.
The jury listened to two taped statements Mr. Leslie gave to investigators and to Mr. Leslie himself, who calmly gave the same answers over and over -- except for a few details.
He had to adjust his story, said Assistant District Attorney Kelly VanGelder, when evidence tripped him up. She and Assistant District Attorney Willie Saunders decided before the trial began that Ms. VanGelder should be the one to cross-examine Mr. Leslie if he testified.
Mr. Leslie always had to be in control of women, resorting to pulling guns and even murder, the prosecutors argued to the jury. He thought he was smarter than everyone, prosecutors said, but investigators found witnesses who testified Mr. Leslie couldn't possibly have injured his face as he claimed, and they discovered the names of two alleged alibi witnesses in a book Mr. Leslie was reading last April.
"It was actually satisfying (to cross-examine Mr. Leslie) because I got to ask the questions I had in my mind about him, and, as I knew, I got no answers," Ms. VanGelder said. "Only an evil person could do what was done to Lori. The verdict does justice for her children."
"I'm very happy and very relieved," Mr. Saunders said after the verdict. "To think that woman was burned alive, that horrified me. At least her children will understand there is justice for their mother and maybe the healing can begin."
The hardest part of prosecuting Mr. Leslie was calling Ms. Hastings' 12-year-old son, Tony Green, as a witness, Mr. Saunders and Ms. VanGelder said. "He tries so hard to be the little man, to be brave for his mother. That breaks my heart more than if he had been in tears all the time," she said.
Ms. Hastings' father, Leonard Hastings, headed home Wednesday night to tell Tony and his three siblings about the verdict. Mr. Hastings said he was glad the trial ended with a guilty verdict.
"But in reality, nobody wins. There's still four children without a mother. A father without a daughter. Sajid's family will be without him now, and his son will grow up without a father," said Mr. Hastings, swallowing hard, straining not to cry.
"We just have to pray for each other now."
Judge Carl C. Brown Jr., who presided over the trial, hasn't set a sentencing date. Mr. Leslie faces a mandatory life sentence for murder and up to 20 years for arson.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.
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