Jury weighs murder case against skinhead

May 30, 2008 12:13:37 PM PDT
Jurors deliberating the case of a one-time white supremacist accused of killing a black man in 1989 face an unusual question: not only whether police have the right killer, but also if they have the right victim. The case, which the jury began deliberating Friday, involves a one-time teenage skinhead who allegedly drove to Philadelphia to kill a random black person so he could "earn" a spiderweb tattoo.

Armed with a tip from an ex-girlfriend, federal agents started investigating defendant Thomas Gibison only a few years ago, and soon found several witnesses who said he had bragged of such a slaying.

One childhood friend admitted being the driver and provided rough details: The victim was about 30. He was shot once in the head as he walked between two cars. They had driven up from Delaware, and turned west off of Broad St. in North Philadelphia.

A Philadelphia detective reviewed 37 unsolved cases from early 1989 before settling on the victim: Aaron Wood.

Wood, a father of five, had died with drugs and alcohol in his system. A note in the file suggested the death was thought to be drug-related.

"He's a 34-year-old black male. (You thought) nobody will care about him in the middle of a drug epidemic," Assistant District Attorney Roger King said in closing arguments late Thursday. "A couple of hours, a couple of days, and it will fall through the cracks."

King acknowledged that the initial investigation might have fallen short. But in the end, the police work proved secondary, he said.

"Surprise, Mr. Gibison," he said. "You were brought down by people close to you."

Gibison, 35, of Newark, Del., is charged with murder, ethnic intimidation and other crimes.

The childhood friend, Craig Peterson, testified that the two were like brothers in their teens. Fellow skinheads at the time, they wanted to earn the spiderweb tattoo on their elbows to mark that they had killed a black person, he said. Prosecutors showed the jury photos of the two men sporting the tattoos they had awarded themselves.

Defense lawyer Michael Farrell, in his closing, tried to discredit the prosecution witnesses - including two ex-girlfriends and Peterson.

But Farrell mostly questioned if his client had ever crossed paths with Wood.

Farrell was never given details of the other 36 unsolved cases. He hammered the point in his closing, saying prosecutors had failed "to bring in that evidence to see the facts on which he (the detective) made the elimination."

"How do we know what the other ones look like?" he asked.

The case represented the last for King, who is black, after four decades as a prosecutor. He talked of growing up in Alabama in the 1960s and invoked the language of the Declaration of Independence - that all men have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"We're not prosecuting Mr. Gibison because he's a skinhead or a white supremacist," he said. "We're prosecuting him because he shot and killed a person ... just because he was black."