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Crack house vigilante spared

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

A man described by neighbors as a Christian and a community guardian after he admitted burning down a crack house eluded a long prison term when a biracial jury refused to find him guilty Friday of arson and burglary.

The four white and two black jurors found Samuel Mohammed guilty of the lesser crimes of criminal mischief and trespassing. Assistant State Attorney Tom Lawson said the maximum penalty could be one year in prison.

Mohammed could have received up to nine years in prison if convicted of the more serious charges, Larson said.

The sentencing date will be set in 30 days.

The jury, which took an hour to reach its verdict, appeared to have heeded Mohammed's words when he testified that "if I'm convicted of a being a criminal . . . you will be saying to this nation: You don't give a damn about suffering."

Mohammed's three court-appointed attorneys said the conviction on the lesser charges was a victory.

The message from the jury in refusing to find a man guilty of arson, even though he admitted setting a fire, was that "people are fed up with crime, especially crack cocaine," said defense attorney Sammy Berry Jr.

"I feel great. I'm happy," is all that Mohammed would say. Attorneys told him not to comment until after sentencing.

Lawson said he was satisfied with the jury's ruling. "We accept the jury's verdict," he said.

Mohammed testified that he set fire to the vacant and boarded-up house used by drug dealers, junkies and prostitutes because police would not act.

"Something needed to be done, and I was the one to do it," he said Friday while the jury was out.

After the verdict he strolled out of the Palm Beach County courthouse with his mother, Vivian Taylor of Gulfport, Miss., and his attorneys.

At the X-ray security point on the first floor, he picked up his cedar staff.

The 6-foot-3, 312-pound former bodyguard, who says his mission is to spread the word of God, is a hero to the people of his neighborhood.

"He's always walking the streets with that staff," John Clayton, a resident of the area where the crack house burned, said Friday as he waited for the jury to return. "He's out there in the hot sun every day. He's a community guardian; you know, always talking to kids. Keeps them out of trouble. He loves children. He loves the elderly.

"He's at church every Sunday. He's always reading his Bible," Clayton said. Both men attend Payne Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church, he said.

Circuit Judge Robert Colton, in allowing Mohammed to remain free on $15,000 bail, asked the defendant if he would stay out of trouble.

"I won't be burning down any more houses," Mohammed replied, drawing laughter from the three dozen people taking up every seat in the small courtroom.