Guilty verdict a relief for family
Appeal Staff Writer
A Trinidad man showed no reaction Tuesday when a Carson City jury found him guilty of raping and killing 18-year-old Sheila Jo Harris more than 25 years ago.
The jury deliberated for just five hours over the course of two days before finding David Winfield Mitchell, 62, guilty of first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon in the January 1982 death of Harris.
The jury will decide today whether Mitchell will serve two terms of life in prison with parole after 10 years or life without parole following statements from Harris’ family and a woman victimized by Mitchell in 1979.
“We are able to move forward now,” said Harris’ sister Shannon Harris, now 33. Shannon was 7 years old when her sister’s body was discovered hours after her killing.
Shannon and her younger sister, Jamie Bratton, just 6 months old in 1982, were in the car outside the Foothill Gardens apartment where their mother, Linda Bratton, and family friend Jan Broderick discovered Harris’ body face down on her bed with just her head showing from beneath a comforter.
An autopsy revealed the community college student had been raped with her hands bound behind her back, beaten with a board that left splinters throughout the apartment and on her body and strangled with what appeared to be an electrical cord that had been wrapped twice around her neck. The cord and board have never been recovered.
Shannon said her life has been colored by the loss of Sheila.
“My mom is able to just move on now and rest. She has worked so hard, for so long, and if it wasn’t for her strength and determination, I don’t know where we would be,” she said.
The sisters and mother were in the courtroom every day since the trial began July 31.
When the verdict was read, the three women, supported throughout by numerous friends, wept and clung to one another.
Broderick, who found Sheila’s body and prevented Linda Bratton from entering the bedroom and seeing her daughter, punched the air and shouted, “Yes!”
“I feel relief,” said Linda Bratton.
It was Bratton’s phone call in 1999 to Carson City Detective Bob White that prompted the then-new investigator to take a look at the case file. He decided to submit swabs taken from Harris’ body during the autopsy for DNA comparison. The results found Mitchell’s blood matched semen found in the victim’s body and on her clothing.
“I know Sheila is looking down on myself and her sister, she knows justice is finally done,” Linda Bratton said.
Scott Burau, a retired chief deputy with the Carson City Sheriff’s Department, worked the case in 1982 when it happened.
He testified that he immediately suspected Mitchell after the groundskeeper was evasive during questioning.
“What really strikes me is the fact that David Mitchell was free for 25 years – longer than Sheila Harris was even on the face of this earth. It’s a tragedy that he was allowed to go about his business and live his life in the wake of this brutal, brutal murder,” said Burau, who’d sat in on the jury’s verdict. “This was not only a loss to the family, but to us (detectives) because of our inability to solve the case as rapidly as we would have liked.”
He said the murder of the “strikingly beautiful” former Miss Douglas County was a hard case to forget for those who worked it.
“It just haunted everybody. It was a part of our lives,” he said. “We all feel for the family and we have since 1982.”
District Attorney Neil Rombardo made a compelling argument in closing that many saw as the clincher to the DNA evidence.
The defense suggested that the killer was Steven Furlong, a former boyfriend to Harris who killed himself in jail on a lewdness charge a month after her murder. Public Defender Diane Crow told the jury on the morning Harris’ body was found, Furlong was soaking a cast off his broken arm and throwing it away.
“What we were pushing was just common sense,” said Rombardo following the verdict. “The defense was arguing that Steve Furlong committed this crime with a cast on his arm which was physically impossible. The doctor testified that it was impossible. It was a crime that took severe violence, severe strength. He couldn’t have done it. Mr. Mitchell’s hair was found at the scene, his sperm was found at the scene, so really it came down to him. There was no one else that it could have been.”
The freshman district attorney, victorious in the biggest case of his career, said he was confident that the jury would return the correct verdict.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that David Mitchell was the person who committed this crime,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine the family had to live with that for 25 years. And now, that finally, justice is served, I hope that (Harris’ mother) gets a good night’s rest tonight.”
• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at email@example.com or 881-1213.
A statement from Linda Bratton, mother of murder victim Sheila Jo Harris:
“The Carson City District Attorney’s office did an excellent job. Neil Rombardo and Gerald Gardner inherited a cold case that they tried with all the passion and dignity that Sheila deserved. The jury should be pleased and proud of their decision. Mitchell is a repeat offender and is off the streets once again. They knew nothing of his past and they did the right thing.”