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Alibi Falters for Man Accused of Burning Black

September 05, 1993| from Reuters

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The defense in the trial of two white men charged with setting a black tourist on fire suffered a setback Saturday when a key witness was unable to provide a solid alibi for one of the defendants.

Defense lawyers had hoped witness Rodney Stewart would provide an alibi for defendant Charles Rourk by placing him at the Lincoln Mobile Home Trailer Park near Tampa at the time of the New Year's Day attack on 32-year-old Christopher Wilson of New York.

But Stewart was unable to say precisely when he saw Rourk at the trailer park on the day in question. He acknowledged it could have been after the abduction.

"There is no clock in my home," said Stewart, who said he had been up late on New Year's Eve and knew only that he saw Rourk before a barbecue planned for noon Jan. 1. The abduction began about 8:30 a.m.

In an unusual Saturday session, jurors heard testimony from several witnesses before Hillsborough County Judge Donald Evans adjourned proceedings until today, granting a new prosecutor's request for time to review defense depositions.

The state's case has been in disarray, and lead prosecutor Harry Lee Coe has been under attack for incompetence since his co-counsel quit last week in disgust at Coe's alleged meddling and bumbling. Coe, the state attorney in Hillsborough County, has not tried a case in 22 years but chose to handle this trial, which has been in the national spotlight.

The trial was moved from Tampa, which has had several racial incidents in the recent past, to West Palm Beach. Passions in Tampa are especially high after police recently shot and killed a black crime suspect and wounded two black bystanders.

The prosecution lacks physical evidence linking Rourk, 33, or co-defendant Mark Kohut, 26, to the crime scene. The defendants say that they are victims of mistaken identity.

But the Jamaican-born Wilson, in more than four hours of testimony Friday, said he got a "good look" at his assailants.

Speaking softly and moving gingerly from the still-healing burns over 40% of his body, Wilson identified Rourk as the "mean one" and Kohut as the "big-eyed one" who kidnaped him, doused him with gasoline and called him a racist name as they set him on fire in a field near Tampa.

If convicted, the men face multiple life sentences.

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