A reputed white supremacist who bragged to friends about beating a dying, homeless black man was spared a life prison sentence Wednesday when an all-minority jury decided that she did not intend to kill.
Jessica Colwell clenched her fists and let out a cry after the Los Angeles Superior Court clerk read the jury's decision that she was not guilty of murder.
"Thank you, God," Colwell, 20, whispered. Wiping tears, she smiled brightly at her lawyer, ignoring the clerk as she read the jury's decision that Colwell beat Milton Walker Jr. because he was black.
Colwell faces a maximum sentence of nine years for racially motivated, involuntary manslaughter in which she wielded a weapon, prosecutors said.
Two other juries last week convicted her co-defendants, Randall Rojas, 24, and Ritch Bryant, 20, of racially motivated first-degree murder for Walker's death, a special circumstance crime punished by life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Some jurors in Colwell's case said they wished they could have produced a harsher conviction. But after a week of deliberation, they resolved that the case fell just short of murder.
"We wanted to get her on a second-degree [murder] and we couldn't," said juror Kathy Young, a legal secretary from Alhambra. "I think that's what she deserved."
Walker was killed Nov. 25, 1995, in a vacant lot behind a Lancaster fast-food restaurant because of the color of his skin.
Rojas, Bryant and another man, who testified via videotape against his former friends and is being prosecuted separately on lesser charges, attacked Walker after a white homeless woman told them he had kicked her.
Rojas repeatedly beat Walker in the face with a board, knocking him down and continuing the attack after he lay motionless.
Later, Bryant insisted on returning to kill Walker so he could earn lightning bolt tattoos, a status symbol in the Lancaster skinhead group to which they belonged. He brought Colwell with him.
In her statements to authorities, Colwell insisted that she thought Walker was dead when she hit him with a metal pipe.
None of the defendants testified on their own behalf during the trial, which focused mainly on expert testimony on the time of death.
Because Walker was beaten twice, Rojas's lawyer argued that Bryant and Colwell delivered the fatal blows. Lawyers for Bryant and Colwell argued that Walker was already dead when they returned.
Jurors said one of the biggest problems in convicting her of a more serious crime was the state's inability to prove that any of the fatal injuries were caused by the pipe that she admitted wielding. Such evidence would have helped prove intent.
Federal authorities say Rojas and Bryant belonged to the skinhead group Nazi Low Riders. Both wear several skinhead tattoos, including lightning bolts on their inner biceps for Walker's killing.
Colwell was said to share their beliefs.
All three are of mixed race, sharing partial Latino parentage.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jacquelyn Lacey, the prosecutor, said she realized Colwell's case was the most difficult to resolve and was glad the jury was able to reach a verdict. Still, she thought Colwell was just as culpable as the others.
"I think she's just as capable [of having participated in the killing]," Lacey said. "Because had she been there from the beginning, she would have been down with them. That's what's most disturbing to me."