Two convicted in racial attack



WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP)—Two white laborers were convicted Tuesday in the burning of a black tourist who said they taunted him with racial slurs, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.

The jury had deliberated for 12 hours after a 10-day trial that included the victim’s softly spoken, chilling testimony, but no physical evidence linking the defendants to the crime. The state’s case also had been hobbled by internal disputes in the prosecution team.

Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk showed no reaction when the jury of five whites and one black found them guilty of attempted murder, kidnapping and robbery.

Burning victim Christopher Wilson sat looking straight ahead next to his mother, Enid Plummer, who looked upward as the first guilty verdict was read and nodded her head yes. Later, she wiped away tears as Wilson whispered to her.

Kohut and Rourk, day laborers from Lakeland, face up to life in prison. Sentencing was set for Oct. 22.

Wilson made no comment as he left the courthouse. His mother said in a statement through prosecutors: ‘‘We are very happy to know justice was served.’‘

‘‘As a black mother, I would like to say that never would I wish for anyone, whether black or white, to have to undergo the pain and agony and frustration we have been through and are still going through.’‘

‘‘We will survive,’‘ she added.

Wilson, a 32-year-old stock brokerage clerk from New York City, was burned over nearly 40 percent of his body.

In his testimony, Wilson described being abducted by gun-wielding attackers on New Year’s Day outside a suburban Tampa shopping plaza and being forced to drive to a remote field, where he was doused with gasoline and set ablaze.

Wilson called Rourk, 33, ‘‘the mean one’‘ who barked racial slurs and sloshed him with gasoline. Kohut, 27, was ‘‘the one with bright eyes’‘ who spoke little during the attack.

There were no fingerprints, hairs, fibers or DNA tying the defendants to the scene, and there was no link found through handwriting analysis of a note left behind that read ‘‘One les nigger more to go.’‘

Defense attorneys also questioned the credibility of the state’s other key witness, Jeffery Pellett, an 18-year-old from Plant City originally charged in the attack who struck a plea deal to testify against his friends. He admitted under cross-examination he had changed his story and would lie to the jury to protect his own interests.

On the third day of the trial, the lead prosecutor, Len Register, abruptly resigned. He cited repeated interference from his boss, State Attorney Harry Lee Coe.

That left the case in the hands of Coe, a former judge, who had not personally prosecuted a case in 22 years. His meandering and sometimes-sloppy courtroom techniques made him the focus of harsh scrutiny.

After the verdict, Coe ridiculed Register as a quitter and said, ‘‘We knew we were going to win this case. We never doubted it for a minute.’‘

Register, now an assistant state attorney for another circuit in North Florida, said he was ‘‘relieved and grateful.’‘

‘‘It had been a very weak case all along, and it would rise and fall on the strength of Chris Wilson’s in-court identity,’‘ Register said.

Gov. Lawton Chiles had monitored the trial because of fears it could spark racial conflict in the Tampa area. ‘‘I am satisfied that our judicial system worked and that justice has been done,’‘ he said.

The case was moved to West Palm Beach after unsuccessful efforts to seat a jury in June amid heavy publicity in Tampa.

Black leaders in Tampa praised the verdict. Bob Gilder, a community leader and former NAACP official, said: ‘‘I think the victory really belongs to the judiciary system, which really needed a victory.’‘

In closing arguments Monday, prosecutors focused on the emotional impact of Wilson’s ordeal. ‘‘This is a case about the horror of burning flesh,’‘ Coe said, holding up the charred tatters of Wilson’s shirt.

Defense attorneys urged the jury to set sympathy aside and look at holes in the prosecution case. They suggested that Pellett and someone else—perhaps those who fed his cocaine habit—were the real culprits.

Julianne Holt, Kohut’s attorney, said she didn’t believe there was sufficient evidence to convict her client and might appeal.

‘‘The sympathy factor may have been too great to overcome,’‘ she said. ‘‘I have sympathy for Mr. Wilson, too.’‘