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Man gets life for role in gay slaying

A man accused of helping kill a homosexual because of an unwanted advance was convicted Thursday of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Charles M. Butler Jr., 21,a formerconstruction worker, was convicted in the slaying of Billy Jack Gaither, 39, whose throat was slashed before he was beaten to death. His body was burned on a pile of old tires.

The victim's father had asked that Butler not be sentenced to death.

"I can't see taking another human being's life, no matter what," said Marion Gaither.

Gaither said he hoped his son would not be remembered as a gay murder victim, but as "one of the finest sons a man could want."

The case drew national attention after authorities said Gaither was killed because of his sexual orientation. President Clinton compared the Gaither slaying to the dragging death of a black man in Texas and the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual Wyoming college student who was lashed to a fence.

The man who committed the murder, Steven Mullins, 25, pleaded guilty earlier and testified against Butler. He was scheduled to be sentenced today and the prosecution said it will recommend he get life without parole.

Butler said he had no idea that Mullins, a skinhead, planned to kill Gaither when he was asked to meet the two men one February night.

In testimony, Mullins said he decided to kill Gaither because the victim had made a pass at him. He said that he asked Butler along and that Butler understood what was to happen.

Mullins cut Gaither's throat and, when the bloodied victim fought back, cracked his head open with an ax handle.

"I was in shock and didn't know what to do," Butler, wiping away tears, said Thursday about his reaction to the murder.

But District Attorney Fred Thompson alleged Butler had numerous chances to flee from the crime or get help for the victim and did not.

"You went along every step of the way?" he said.

"Yes, sir," Butler replied.

Mullins said he and Gaither, a computer operator, had been drinking buddies until Gaither propositioned him. He testified that Butler went along with a plan to lure Gaither to a remote area on Feb. 19 with the promise of a sexual threesome _ something Butler repeatedly denied in his testimony.

Mullins said Butler helped burn the body on a pile of kerosene-soaked tires and torched Gaither's car.

Butler admitted helping destroy evidence but denied plotting to kill Gaither.

At 5-foot-3, 120 pounds, Butler was described by prosecutors as a boyish looking sixth-grade dropout who resembled Opie from The Andy Griffith Show.

"You could put him on Mayberry," according to prosecutor Jeff Willis.