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Judge refuses to grant new trials for men convicted in notorious 1993 racial attack

TAMPA — A judge refused Wednesday to set aside life sentences handed down in 1993 to two of Hillsborough County's most notorious criminals.

Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk received the maximum punishment for attempted first-degree murder after being found guilty of lighting a black man on fire in a racially charged attack.

They argued in July for a new trial, their latest bid at relief in a case that has been litigated extensively in state and federal courts.

Calling the crime "particularly heinous" and an "atrocious act," Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco wrote that the legal journey should now end.

"Approaching the 18-year anniversary of this offense," she said, "it is time for finality."

But attorneys for the men indicated Wednesday they will appeal the judge's rulings.

Sisco found that the men were unable to establish "a manifest injustice" that warranted vacating their convictions.

"These defendants have not been wronged," she said. "They do not reside unjustly in prison for life; this is an absolute certainty."

Kohut, 44, and Rourk, 50, contend they were jailed for a nonexistent crime. The Florida Supreme Court struck down the charge of attempted first-degree felony murder in a 1995 decision rendered a few days before an appeals court affirmed the men's convictions.

At the time, their appellate attorneys and the appellate court did not realize the decision applied to their cases. The Legislature reinstated the charge the following year.

Kohut eventually noticed the oversight. He said he didn't seek relief on that basis sooner because he didn't have access to Florida case law in the New Mexico prisons where he and Rourk were sent for their safety.

Though Sisco agreed the 1995 court decision was applicable, she said it wasn't enough.

Prosecutors also argued attempted premeditated murder at the men's trials. Sisco found there was overwhelming evidence for the men to be convicted under that theory.

Kohut and Rourk never challenged whether the crime of attempted premeditated murder was committed but contended only that they were not the ones who did it, the judge said.

Both inmates have failed on multiple occasions to convince the courts that they were wrongly accused of kidnapping Christopher Wilson, a New York tourist, at gunpoint from a Valrico shopping center and dousing him with gasoline in a field.

Wilson suffered burns on nearly 40 percent of his body as his attackers laughed and yelled racial slurs.

"This is a textbook example of attempted premeditated murder that any reasonable person could comprehend if asked to contemplate such a gruesome topic," Sisco wrote.

"Once the identity of the defendants was established by this jury beyond a reasonable doubt, their conviction for the crime of attempted premeditated murder was a foregone, and a just and true, conclusion."

In a separate ruling, the judge found no merit in Kohut and Rourk's contention that the FBI agent who conducted the hair and fiber analyses in their case did incomplete work or failed to adhere to crime lab standards.

Sisco noted that the defendants both relied throughout the trial on the FBI's findings, which turned up no physical evidence linking either of them to the crime scene.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Judge refuses to grant new trials for men convicted in notorious 1993 racial attack 11/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010 12:08am]

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