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2 Whites Found Guilty of Setting Black Ablaze : Crime: Florida men convicted on all counts, could face life terms. Attack on tourist evoked shock, outrage.

September 08, 1993|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Two white men were found guilty Tuesday of abducting a black tourist at gunpoint, dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire as he sat in his car, then leaving him to die last New Year's Day in a field outside Tampa, Fla.

Mark A. Kohut, 27, and Charles Rourk, 33, showed no emotion as they listened to the verdict of a six-member jury sitting in West Palm Beach. They could face life in prison when sentenced Oct. 22.

The attack on Christopher Wilson, a 32-year-old stock brokerage clerk from Brooklyn, N.Y., sent waves of shock and revulsion across the country and galvanized civil rights groups outraged by the crime. The trial was moved out of Tampa, where racial tensions run high, after defense attorneys argued that publicity there would make selection of an impartial jury impossible.

Although burned over 40% of his body, Wilson survived. He identified his two attackers in a hushed courtroom last week and tried to tell the jury of the excruciating pain he felt as his flesh began to burn.

"I can't even describe it--you feel pain all over," Wilson, a native of Jamaica, said in a soft voice, tears welling in his eyes. "You hurt so much."

Rourk and Kohut, drifters who met at a day labor pool outside Tampa, were charged with attempted murder, kidnaping and robbery. The jury of three white men, two white women and one black woman found them both guilty on all three counts after about nine hours of deliberation.

As the verdict on the last count was being read, Hillsborough County State Atty. Harry Lee Coe III turned to touch the hand of Wilson, who sat in the front row of the courtroom with his mother, Enid Plummer.

Wilson had no comment. But outside the courtroom, Plummer said, "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."

Coe added: "I hope to some small degree this makes up for his pain and suffering."

Coe, a former judge who had not prosecuted a criminal case in 22 years, won the conviction despite lack of any physical evidence linking the defendants to the crime and a courtroom manner that at times seemed confused. He forgot to introduce some critical evidence. He once called the wrong witness and on another occasion called for witnesses not on his witness list.

"They almost blew it," said Jeffrey S. Weiner, a Miami attorney and past president of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But this case brings up the terrible history of racism that defines America, and it was a tough case to defend. Jurors have a natural tendency to sympathize with the victim of the most heinous acts."

Said Julianne Holt, a public defender representing Kohut: "The sympathy factor may have been too great." Holt said she would appeal.

Coe took over the case after Len Register, who had been the lead prosecutor, abruptly quit three days into the trial, citing interference from Coe, his boss.

The state's case also seemed weak because Wilson, in pretrial depositions, had only identified one of his assailants from photographs and the man expected to be the chief prosecution witness, Jeffery Pellett, an admitted accomplice, confessed on the stand to being a liar.

But the case turned on the wrenching testimony of Wilson, a stocky, heavy-set man who had stopped to buy a newspaper at a shopping center in Valrico, outside Tampa, on New Year's Day morning when he stepped into a nightmare.

After being forced to drive to a deserted field 15 miles away, Wilson said he was splashed with gasoline from a plastic jug and then listened as his own cigarette lighter was used to set him on fire.

"I hear like this noise--fwoop!--like lighting a stove, a gas stove," Wilson said Friday from the witness stand. "After a second or two I feel this tremendous heat."

In the most dramatic moment of the trial, Wilson identified both Rourk and Kohut as his abductors. Wilson called Rourk "the mean one," who seemed to delight in calling him "nigger" and telling him he was going to die.

He identified Kohut as "the one with the big eyes," the man he watched in the rear-view mirror as he was forced to drive his Cadillac to the field.

Wilson suffered second- and third-degree burns over much of his body and spent weeks in a hospital. On the witness stand, he removed a protective glove and showed jurors his right hand and forearm, white in spots where skin grafts had been made.

Although Judge Donald C. Evans would not allow Wilson to remove his shirt to reveal the burn scars on his chest, Coe showed jurors several 8-by-10-inch photos of Wilson's charred body as he made his closing argument. He also held up a tattered scrap of burned cloth, all that remains of Wilson's shirt, and read the note left at the scene: "One les nigger more to go."

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