West Palm Beach
Though a free man back in Palm Beach, Sullivan was reduced to riding around town on his twelve-speed Peugeot bicycle. He became reclusive, now shunned by the Palm Beach social circuit. One neighbor said Sullivan had lost weight and looked visibly stressed, that his face was gaunt and he looked "almost like a ghost."
Sullivan sold the Palm Beach mansion for $3.2 million and moved to a more modest place in nearby Boynton Beach.
In 1994, the McClintons and their lawyer, Brad Moores, took Sullivan to West Palm Beach Civil Court in a "wrongful death" suit. In civil court, judgments are based on the weight of evidence, whereas in criminal court, a defendant has to be deemed guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
A few days before that case went to trial, Sullivan fired his lawyers, opting to represent himself.
"I think it was a strategic decision," says Moores. Lawyerless, saying that he lacked the funds to get proper representation, Sullivan hoped the jury would sympathize with him.
In his opening address to the jury, Sullivan pouted and said "… something else that is terrible and that is to be wrongly accused of murder, to have to live through that and with that is another form of death, another form of murder of the spirit." He added, "To be a husband and to lose your wife violently is the worst thing that can happen to a husband."
Because Sullivan represented himself, he questioned Jo Ann and Emory on the witness stand. Emory McClinton said, "It was horrible being questioned by the killer of your daughter."
The jury heard testimony from Suki and Paul O'Brien, the convicted robber who had broken Sullivan's nose in jail. O'Brien told the court that Sullivan confessed to arranging Lita's murder, and that the only thing he couldn't account for was the collect call made from the interstate.
It didn't take long for the jury to reach its verdict. On February 25, 1994, Sullivan was found guilty and ordered to pay the Mc-Clintons $4 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The McClintons were elated. "For us, it was never about the money," says Jo Ann. "We wanted Jim to be held accountable for what he did to our daughter."
Sullivan, now quick to hire lawyers, appealed. Devastating to the McClintons, in 1995 the Florida Supreme Court overturned the 1994 verdict, ruling that the court case hadn't been filed soon enough. Unlike in criminal cases, where there is no statute of limitations on murder, civil court has a two-year statute for wrongful death, and those two years had long passed.
Moores counterappealed, arguing that the statue shouldn't apply when Sullivan concealed his involvement in the shooting. "You shouldn't be able to beat the system because you're clever and fraudulent," says Moores. "Finally, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with us." In 1997, the court reinstated the guilty verdict.
The decision prompted a wave of media attention. After a story about Sullivan appeared on TV's Extra, authorities got a break in early 1998. A woman in Texas, Belinda Trahan, called Atlanta police and told them she recognized Sullivan. Her ex-boyfriend, Phillip Anthony "Tony" Harwood, was the same truck driver Sullivan had met when he first moved to West Palm Beach. She told the GBI that Harwood had met Sullivan in a Florida diner, shortly after Lita's death. She saw Sullivan slip Harwood an envelope full of money. The final payment. It was a link authorities desperately needed.