2 Fla. whites convicted of burning black tourist

September 08, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Two white laborers were convicted of all charges yesterday in the burning of a black tourist who said they taunted him with racial slurs, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire on New Year's Day.

Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk, both of Lakeland, Fla., showed no reaction when the jury of five whites and one black found them guilty of attempted murder, kidnapping and robbery. The jury returned its decision after a 10-day trial and 12 hours of deliberations.

The victim, Christopher Wilson, a soft-spoken New York City stock brokerage clerk on whose testimony the conviction hinged, 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.

He had little to say after the verdicts were read, but he left the courtroom with his tearful mother on his arm and a broad smile on his face.

"We all hope in some small way this helps make up for his pain and suffering," said prosecutor Harry Lee Coe III. "The justice system has spoken on what we believe should happen to people who commit these intolerable crimes."

The assault on Mr. Wilson, a 32-year-old Jamaican immigrant who had set out to buy a newspaper before the attack that ended in a field east of Tampa, ranks among the most heinous racial crimes in recent Florida history.

The case drew so much media attention that it had to be moved to West Palm Beach to seat an unbiased jury. And it continued to make headlines once the trial began, largely because of bickering among the prosecution team that led to the resignation of the lead prosecutor during the third day of testimony.

Assistant State Attorney Len Register stormed out in mid-trial, .. calling Mr. Coe, a judge-turned-prosecutor who has not tried a case in 22 years, "inept." By the time the prosecution called its last witness, many seasoned observers believed that chances for a conviction depended on how jurors responded to Mr. Wilson's testimony.

Mr. Wilson delivered. In a calm voice, he identified the men as the two who abducted him at gunpoint from a suburban Tampa %% shopping mall and forced him to drive to a field 16 miles away. He told jurors he recognized Kohut because of his "big bright eyes"; he remembered Rourk as "the mean one," who soaked him in gasoline before setting him on fire with a lighter.

And he recounted the horror of confronting death as he smelled the gasoline vapors and heard the lighter click.

Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt, who represented Kohut, also attributed the conviction to that testimony. "The sympathy factor may have been too great," she said. "As I said in court, I, too, have sympathy for Wilson.

"The jury has spoken, and we have the right to appeal."

Defense attorneys had argued that there was no physical evidence -- hairs, fingerprints or fibers -- linking Rourk and Kohut to the crime. Police arrested the wrong men, they said.

The attack took place 30 miles away, between 8:30 and 9:45 a.m. Rourk told police that he was asleep from 5:30 a.m. to noon.

Mr. Wilson's mother, Ms. Plummer, issued a written statement praising the justice system and denouncing the crime.

"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, agony and frustration that we have been through and are still going through. There is still a rough road ahead of us, but with the help of God, family members, friends and well-wishers, we will survive."

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