CHRISTOPHER WILSON'S chilling account of how he was sloshed with gasoline and set on fire was credited with convincing a West Palm Beach, Fla., jury to convict two white men of the crime despite errors by prosecutors and gaps in the evidence.
Laborers Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk were convicted Tuesday of attempted murder, kidnapping, and robbery in the New Year's Day attack on the black tourist. The two could get life in prison at sentencing Oct. 22.
``It was [Wilson] and he alone who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat,'' said Len Register, the prosecutor who quit in the middle of the trial, complaining of second-guessing by his boss. ``It had been a very weak case all along, and it would rise and fall on Chris Wilson's in-court identification.''
Mr. Wilson, a stock brokerage clerk from New York, was abducted from a suburban Tampa shopping center.
Some jurors shed tears as Wilson described how he stood soaked in gasoline and heard his attackers threaten to kill him. But there were no fingerprints, hairs, fibers, or DNA evidence tying Mr. Kohut and Mr. Rourk to the scene, a field. Nor was there any link through handwriting analysis of a note left behind that indicated that the crime was racially motivated.
Also, the credibility of the state's other key witness, Jeffery Pellett, was questioned. He was charged in the attack but struck a plea bargain. The case had raised fears of racial violence in Tampa. The trial was moved to West Palm Beach after a Tampa jury could not be found.