Victim's dying words prove crucial
The courtroom was somber as the jury, after three hours of deliberation, found Sessions Harper guilty of murder, sexual assault, kidnapping and arson in the death of 22-year-old Holly Michael Friday evening.
The emotion was clear in the faces of Michael's family and friends who were present throughout the two-week trial at the courthouse in Storm Lake.
"It's a relief," Anita Michael, Holly's mother, said after hearing the verdict. "It was the right verdict and now he will not be able to hurt anyone else."
"She saved lives," Gary Michael, Holly's father, said. "She helped put him away."
The parents shared that they miss Holly's spirit.
"Everyone always commented on her beautiful smile," Anita said.
Holly had a young son, Avery, who now lives with his father but Anita said they get to see him a lot.
"I'm going to make sure that Avery knows who his mother is and how much she loved him," Gary said.
Anita hopes that this case will turn some heads and help victims of violent crime to gain more rights.
"The rights of victims in this state is bad," Anita said. She said that loved ones in a case like Michael's struggle to know what is happening in the legal system.
Although it took over a year to reach a conclusion after their daughter was raped, bound and set on fire, the parents feel the legal system fulfilled its role.
"The legal part is done but it will still take time for the hole in our hearts to heal - if it ever does," Anita said.
Prosecutors Scott Brown and Tim Schott were please with the verdict.
"We believed the jury came to the right decision," Brown said. He noted that it will be about seven to 14 months before a sentence is completed, depending on potential appeals.
In Iowa, first-degree murder carries a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.
Defense lawyer Mike Williams declined to comment on the verdict.
The Harper family left the courthouse shortly after the verdict. Harper's wife had been in tears in the courtroom.
On Thursday, the defense started and ended its case by calling in different medical personnel to testify that they did not hear Michael accuse Harper of attacking her and setting her home on fire, attempting to counter earlier witnesses including Dr. Dan Cole from the hospital who said that they had heard Michael identify Harper as her assailant before her death.
Jessica Haub, the scribe for the emergency room, said that she did not hear Dr. Cole ask Michael anything.
The defense called only 10 witnesses Thursday. Sessions Harper did not take the stand in his own defense.
Closing statements started early Friday morning. State's attorney Scott Brown asked the jury to use logic to convict Harper.
"Holly Michael said who had done this to her. She said that Sessions Harper raped her, tied her up and dragged her to the basement where he set her on fire," Brown said. "The doctors and Alexa Maynard (earlier witnesses) testified that they did not know who Sessions Harper is and they would not draw this out of the air independently."
Williams, for the defense, said that the State had to prove that Harper did commit the act.
"There is a Mount Everest of legal proof they have to climb," Williams said. "It's not something that is impossible to do with the right equipment and evidence and every step being solid they can prove it - but they did not."
Brown was allowed one more statement and said that the state had met the requirements to reach a guilty plea.
Judge Allen Goode addressed the jury with what they were expected to do, as they went into deliberation. A crowd remained in the hallway for three hours, awaiting the verdict.
After the court dismissed, Michael's friends, family and supporters gathered around and had a prayer circle for support.
Everyone waited in the hallway for as the jury worked through their duties.
Sessions Harper was arrested on January 11, 2006 in Des Moines as the suspect in the attack on Michael three days earlier. Michael had third degree burns covering over 50 percent of her body, but she live for another 18 days before passing away at University Hospitals in Iowa City.
Both Harper and Michael are from Fort Dodge. The trial was moved to Buena Vista County due to pretrial publicity.
Harper's sentencing hearing is set for February 23 at 9:30 a.m. here in Buena Vista County. He would be able to appeal the decision and demand a new trial up five days before his hearing.