Betsy Cole, a 59-year-old Howard University housekeeper, was found guilty of first-degree murder yesterday in plotting the death of her husband three years ago by paying three assailants to shoot him.
Two other persons, one a 70-year-old domestic worker with a heart condition and a 65-year-old house painter, were found guilty of second-degree murder for assisting Cole in the scheme.
The D.C. Superior Court jury verdict capped a two-week trial in which federal prosecutors accused all three defendants of participating in a plan to pay three men$2,500 to gun down George Cole early on the morning of March 11, 1983, as he walked to a bus stop to go to work.
Cole, then a 62-year-old handyman at an elementary school in Silver Spring, was shot five times less than a block from his back door at 604 Columbia Rd. in what first appeared to be a robbery.
Prosecutors argued that Betsy Cole ordered her husband killed to collect a$24,000 life insurance policy. Defense attorneys said that the story was made up by Cole's assailants, who agreed to testify for the government in exchange for reduced charges against them.
Betsy Cole, who faces a mandatory sentence of 20 years to life in prison, showed little emotion as the verdict was read. Her codefendants, Maud Byars and James Morris, each could be sentenced to 15 years to life.
Judge Eugene N. Hamilton ordered all three defendants held at D.C. Jail pending sentencing.
Cole's attorney, Darrel S. Parker, said later, "We're just very disappointed in the verdict and the way the jury saw the facts. We just felt the facts didn't warrant that kind of verdict."
Parker said the verdicts will be appealed.
A fourth codefendant, Betsy Cole's daughter Mavis Francis, was found innocent of a perjury charge. Francis was accused of lying to a grand jury earlier this year when she testified that she could not remember driving to the bank and withdrawing $2,000 the day her stepfather was shot. That was the amount the assailants said they received that evening as a partial payment for the killing.
Federal prosecutors worked more than three years with homicide detectives to solve the case. It hinged on the testimony of two of the assailants, Edward Hawkins, 30, and Romes Austin Jr., 28, who told the jury they agreed to kill Cole to support their drug habits.
Police who arrested Hawkins shortly after the slaying tricked him into giving a statement implicating himself, Austin and a third man, as well as Cole, Byars and Morris. But Hawkins fled to California after being released on bond and was not apprehended for nearly two years.
Hawkins' account was corroborated in April last year when Austin -- serving a sentence in Lorton Reformatory for an unrelated robbery -- agreed to talk about the murder with a private detective investigating Cole's insurance claim. The detective eventually was forced to turn the information over to police.
Hawkins and Austin told the jury that Morris approached them on a street corner and "told us a friend of a friend would like to have her husband killed."
Both men are awaiting sentencing on second-degree murder charges.