1982 killer gets life without parole
Appeal Staff Writer
Spectators in a Carson City courtroom erupted into applause Wednesday after a jury determined David Winfield Mitchell should spend the rest of his life in prison without parole for the 1982 murder of Sheila Jo Harris.
The sentence came just 30 minutes after jurors began deliberations following victim impact statements from Harris’ mother and sisters and testimony about Mitchell’s previous prison stints and an attempted rape in 1979.
On Tuesday the same jury found Mitchell guilty of first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon for the beating, rape and strangulation of Harris, 18, more than 25 years ago. DNA evidence in the form of semen on the victim’s clothes and body linked the Trinidad native in 1999 to her killing. He had been arrested in her murder in 1986 based on a hair found at the crime scene, but charges were later dropped for lack of evidence.
“You have been glaring at me in courts since 1985. You glared at me Friday night and you glared at me when the verdict came in yesterday,” said Harris’ mother, Linda Bratton, addressing what she later described as a “smirking” Mitchell, directly. “Make no mistake, if you ever come up for parole, I will be there to fight it, because if you had not been paroled in 1981, my daughter would still be alive – so smile all you want to.”
Jamie Bratton said she was only 6 months old when her sister Sheila was killed. Now 26, Jamie, said she never got the chance to know her sister in life, but her death was too familiar.
“David Mitchell was 37 years old when he took my sister’s life. That was more than twice the life she got to live. Not to mention the 25 years since then. You got 25 years free after this. We wish we had just even one more minute,” she said. “I hope you experience a tiny little bit of the fear and humiliation that my sister felt on that day.”
Sister Shannon Harris thanked the jury for their verdict and asked that they sentence Mitchell to life without parole.
“I may have only been 7 years old when my sister was raped and murdered, but she was my sister. I was born a middle child and I should have been raised a middle child. Instead, because of one man’s sickness, because of one man’s selfishness, I had no choice. Sheila had no choice.”
But the most powerful testimony, according to jurors, was Mitchell’s history of assault, which was kept from them during the trial.
Attempts during the trial by the prosecution to get in Mitchell’s “prior bad acts” were denied by the judge because it was considered too prejudicial.
Jannine Sullivan told the jury that in 1979 in Santa Clara, Calif., Mitchell assaulted her and her sister in their apartment.
The two women were able to fight off a knife-wielding Mitchell. He was captured nine months later and pleaded to assault with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment. Mitchell was sentenced to three years in prison. It’s unclear how much of that he served.
Ed Heddy, a retired Carson City Sheriff’s sergeant, told the jury of Mitchell’s other convictions.
According to Heddy, Mitchell had spent 10 years in prison for the rapes of three woman in Brooklyn, New York. Heddy said in each instance, Mitchell confronted the women in their own homes, threatened them with knives, bound them with electrical cord and raped them.
Mitchell was paroled in 1978 to be deported to his native country of Trinidad but whether the deportation took place is unknown.
Following their testimony, the jury twice sent out the question, “Why wasn’t the death penalty an option,” Judge Todd Russell said in court.
The choice to not seek the death penalty was made by former District Attorney Noel Waters. Waters said you cannot seek the death penalty against a defendant charged under the felony murder rule if the only criteria for death is the same thing that elevated the charge from second-degree murder. Prosecutors used the sexual assault as the means to elevate the charge against Mitchell.
Public Defender Diane Crow said that Mitchell asked her to not speak to the jury on his behalf.
“It’s his one act of contrition in this matter,” she said, asking that the jury show him mercy.
After being released from duty, jury foreman Brad McCarty said that Mitchell got a “very fair trial.
“We were very comfortable with our verdict,” he said. “It boiled down to, ‘Can you establish that he was the killer?’ It was clear that he had had sex with her. But could we establish that he was the killer, that’s what most of our deliberation was about.”
Upon learning of Mitchell’s history, especially that of the Santa Clara assault, which McCarty said “weighed heavily” on him, the sentencing decision was easy.
“We compared life with and without and we decided that the man was capable of perpetrating acts. Certainly even at the age of (62) we thought he could certainly still be a threat,” he said. “That he would attack two women simultaneously, it’s pretty clear he thought pretty highly of his ability to carry out an assault.
“The system today worked the way it should, I’m sad that the system was so slow in getting here.”
Mitchell will be formally sentenced by Judge Russell on Sept. 10.
His sentence will be automatically appealed by the Public Defender’s Office, as are all cases of first-degree murder in the state.
• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at email@example.com or 881-1213.