In the small, paneled courtroom on the fourth floor of the fortress-like Criminal Justice Building here, a young man was found guilty of a reduced charge of manslaughter and a second was found innocent today in the first murder trial to result from the May 17 Liberty City rioting.
Prosecutors said the two were part of a mob that dragged Jeffrey Kulp from a car that happened into the riot zone, and stomped and kicked him for almost an hour. When a police SWAT team finally got to Kulp, they found one ear cut off, the other bleeding, his tongue cut out and a rose stuffed down his throat. He died four weeks later.
James McCullough, who sat smiling confidently as; the prosecutors tried to link him to the crime, was found guilty of manslaughter.
His co-defendant, Frankie Lee James, was found innocent of all charges.
The second-degree murder trial of these two men was the first to make its way onto the crowded Miami dockets from the riots that killed 18 and destroyed $100 million in property.
Beyond the personal tragedies, the Kulp case underscores the difficulty of affixing blame in riots where rage turns a crowd into a mob and terrifies potential witnesses.
The riots were touched off by an all-white jury's acquittal of five policemen in an earlier murder trial -- that one arising from the bludgeoning death of a black man, 33-year-old insurance executive Arthur McDuffie. Blacks in Liberty City, enraged at the verdict, erupted in a two-day siege that turned their neighborhood into a war zone.
Live, from Miami, TV cameras brought America the first living-room war since Vietnam: smoke curling over the city, the crackle of gunfire between rioters and police, looters daring police to try to stop them as they hauled off furniture, whole sides of beef, whiskey, and TV sets to watch themselves on. Viewers were especially shocked by the hatred, the viciousness, that the mob demonstrated toward whites who drove unwittingly into the melee.
McCullough, 20, and James, 18, according to prosecutors, were part of that mob, 200-strong, that inflicted Kulp's fatal injuries. Kulp's car had careened out of control after a brick went through the window. It jumped the median, smashed into a wall and mangled the leg of an 11-year-old black girl, Shanreka Perry.
McCullough said in a statement to police that he had, indeed, "kicked him [Kulp] one time in the chest." He was enraged, he said. He had just pushed the young black girl out of the way when he turned to see that "two white crackers had been pulled from the car and were being beaten."
He blamed Kulp's death on "a dude with a screwdriver" who kept stabbing him in the eyes and the mouth and then "got into his green and white Cadillac and drove over him. He backed up once and that's when his ear came off." McCullough was unable to identify another man who kept "shooting the cracker with a .25 automatic. He shot him three times."
In closing arguments to the jury, prosecutors switched from an earlier tactic -- accusing McCullough and James of direct responsibility for the murder -- to charging that the defendants' guilt lay primarily in participating with gusto in the mob violence.
"Their actions aided, abetted, assisted, encouraged and excited the mob of some 200 people," said Assistant State Attorney Leonard Glick. "Jeffrey Kulp died as a result of injuries inflicted by these defendants and the mob. The law says that they must be held responsible for their actions and the actions of the mob."
An autopsy report on Kulp detailed injuries from head to toe: a fractured skull, jaw and cheek bones; three stab wounds in the stomach, three bullet holes from stomach to calf.
Kulp was on his way home from a fishing trip. His brother, Michael, who was beaten at the same curb, is out of the hospital but still being treated. Debra Gettman, 23, the older Kulp's girlfriend, was unable to identify the killers. She was whisked to safety by a passing taxi.
Prosecutors could find only two witnesses who would testify that McCullough and James were part of the mob and its vengence. One key witness was legally blind. An ex-alcoholic on welfare, she said she saw McCullough jam his elbow into Kulp's throat three times as the victim lay in the street. She remembered the blow -- a "dynamic elbow" -- because it reminded her of a vicious move made famous by one of her favorite TV wrestlers.
The other witness, a black grocer who saw the Kulp beatings at his front door and a separate group of three whites being beaten to death in his parking lot, testified that James "kicked" at something on the ground. But, he said, there were so many people around the victim that he couldn't actually see if any of the blows struck the body.
Defense attorney Roy Gonzalez scoffed at the notion that the first witness could testify to anything. Not only does she suffer from "night blindness," but she wasn't wearing her glasses at the time, he said.
The defendants were also charged with attempted second-degree murder and aggravated assault of Michael Kulp. Two more men are scheduled to go on trial for the same murder next week. A second murder trial stemming from the riots is on the dockets, too, that one for the murders of the three white men beaten by a mob in the grocer's parking lot.
Defense attorneys told the jury of three white men, one white woman and one black woman that neither defendant should be called to account for the mob's attack.
Gonzalez, McCullough's attorney, described his client's kick as "one of frustration" arising out of his horror at watching Kulp's car maim a child. The girl's leg was later amputated.
McCullough and James were among 580 defendants charged with major and minor crimes from the May 17-19 rioting. More than 900 people were arrested for riot-related violations. Of those, 217 were charged with felonies and 363 have been scheduled for trials over violations ranging from trespassing to loitering to curfew infractions.
Another 343 people originally arrested in connection with the riot went free because state prosecutors felt evidence was scanty, or the victims and witnesses to an alleged crime didn't appear in court to testify.
Prosecutors experienced similar frustrations in the Kulp case. "Riot cases are just hard to prove," said George Yoss, chief assistant state attorney. "You're talking about a mob scene. It's hard to ask, 'What did he [the perpetrator] look like?' In the Kulp [killing], you have 10, 15, 20 people collectively stomping someone. It's difficult to get anyone to tell you what they saw."
The prosecutor also said, "People are afraid of reprisal, and it's a very real fear.If they cooperate with us, they're often perceived as cooperating with 'the establishment.' That makes them traitors."