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Convicts in horrific 1993 Valrico racist attack want verdict reversed

EDITOR'S NOTE: Correction notice appended below.

TAMPA — Seventeen years ago, two white day laborers from Lakeland shocked the nation and lost their freedom by setting a black man on fire.

On New Year's Day 1993, trailer park roommates Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk kidnapped a New York tourist from a Valrico shopping center. They doused Christopher Wilson with gasoline, then laughed and yelled racial slurs as nearly 40 percent of his skin burned.

A Hillsborough County judge called the crime among "the most atrocious and offensive" he had ever heard.

Officials arranged for the men to serve out their life prison sentences away from Florida for their safety.

But as the victim has tried to put the horrific experience behind him, the men he identified as his attackers continue working to persuade the justice system to revisit the case.

Kohut, 44, and Rourk, 50, arrived with their attorneys in a Tampa courtroom Thursday seeking again to have their sentences for attempted first-degree murder set aside.

They came with fresh evidence they hope will be the ticket to victory.

They each maintain that the state prosecuted the wrong people.

"I've got a life sentence," Kohut testified. "I'm not going to sit down and roll over when I know they've done things that are incorrect."

Their return to court is no surprise. As soon as the guilty verdicts were announced in the fall of 1993, defense attorneys vowed to appeal.

Efforts so far have been unsuccessful.

In 1995, the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld the convictions without comment.

The landscape of Kohut and Rourk's latest court battle — an evidentiary hearing granted by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco — is quite different from their initial trial.

That took place in West Palm Beach, relocated from Tampa after picking an impartial jury proved impossible.

The case drew intense media scrutiny, thanks to the ugly nature of the crime and bizarre twists in the proceedings.

The lead prosecutor quit during the trial after a public dispute with his boss, Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe. Coe, a former judge who had not tried a case in decades, took over the prosecution and was lambasted in the press for his eccentric courtroom behavior.

On Thursday, prosecutors from Pinellas County argued the state's position. The case was transferred to them because Hillsborough's current state attorney, Mark Ober, represented co-defendant Jeffery Pellett when he was a private defense lawyer.

Ober's client, an admitted liar, received a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against the other men.

Only a handful of local reporters showed up for the hearing, a change not lost on Kohut.

Prosecutors "don't want to have to deal with another trial because they don't think they can win," he said. "There's no public sentiment this time."

Wilson, a soft-spoken man who never was comfortable with the attention his case commanded, wasn't there either.

When a reporter called his Florida home Thursday afternoon, Wilson's mother answered. She said her son's girlfriend died in a car accident that morning.

"Today is just not a good day," Wilson said when he got on the phone.

Talking about the attack remains painful, he said.

"I'm still trying to forget some things," he said.

Kohut and Rourk, however, are consumed by the details.

They both have spent hours in prison law libraries.

Kohut, who still looks boyish, rattled off Latin terms and legal jargon in court with ease. Rourk, his sandy hair and beard now gray, said he was not as adept at putting his arguments onto paper.

Their strategy is two-pronged. They claim they were convicted of a crime — attempted first-degree felony murder — that the Florida Supreme Court struck down in a 1995 decision rendered a few days before an appeals court affirmed their convictions.

Though legislators re­instated the charge by statute in 1996 and the state also argued attempted premeditated murder, Kohut and Rourk say they were entitled to relief under the ruling.

They didn't ask for the relief sooner, they say, because they didn't have access to Florida case law in the New Mexico prisons where they were placed.

They are also touting evidence of potentially tainted work by the FBI's crime laboratory that was not discovered until after their trial.

An independent scientific review concluded that a hair and fiber examiner's testimony in the case was inconsistent with his lab reports and notes.

Defense attorneys contend that the agent's improper testing procedures makes all the evidence in the case suspect.

But prosecutors noted that the defense previously emphasized the competency of the FBI, whose tests turned up no physical evidence that linked Rourk or Kohut to the crime scene.

"From an exculpatory standpoint, I don't know how it gets better for the defendants than that," said Judge Sisco, who will continue to hear testimony and argument today.

Former Kohut attorney Rick Levinson, testifying by phone from Colorado, begged to differ.

The case would get much better for the defendants, he said, in the event that proper testing had linked the crime to someone else.

Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

CORRECTION: A photo used with this story shows Enid Plummer, Christopher Wilson's mother, at a 1993 news conference in Tampa with her son and prosecutor Harry Lee Coe III. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online gave an incorrect year.

Convicts in horrific 1993 Valrico racist attack want verdict reversed 07/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 1:54pm]
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