Local News

Life or Death for Burmeister? Jury to Start...

Posted February 27, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— The jury in the James Burmeister murder trial shifts from one question, guilt or innocence, to another: life vs. death.

On Thursday, the Cumberland County jury convicted the former 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper of murdering two people on a deserted city street on a night he went out hunting blacks.

James N. Burmeister, 21, was charged with shooting Jackie Burden and Michael James to death on Dec. 7, 1995.

``I'm so happy ... I can't talk, I'm so happy,'' said Mary Lou Burden, Jackie Burden's mother, raising her arms in victory outside the Cumberland County Courthouse.

Mrs. Burden said she was worried as jurors deliberated for 10 hours.

``Well, he took two lives and I think his should be taken also,'' she said shen asked what she thought was a proper punishment.

But the mother of victim Michael James, Lillie G. James, does not favor a death sentence in the case.

``He has the heart of cold steel and God help him,'' said Lillie G. James after the verdict was announced. But she said she didn't wish for the death penalty.

The sentencing phase is schedule to begin at 10 a.m. Friday. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, the judge by law must sentence Burmeister to life in prison

The jury began reviewing evidence in the case Tuesday over the fate of Burmeister, of Thompson, Pa. He was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.

Burmeister showed no emotion as the verdict was read, but his mother, Kathy, sobbed in the row of seats behind him. Mrs. Burmeister and her daughter, Michelle, held hands as they left the courtroom.

One juror had red eyes and appeared to be dabbing her eyes when the verdict was read and another juror patted her on the back.

The jury took a lunch break after delivering its verdict. The jury was scheduled to return at 2:30 p.m. The next order of business is sentencing - he faces death or life in prison without parole.

The killings prompted an Army-wide investigation into extremist activity in the service. The probe turned up little evidence of that, but since then the Army has made efforts to more carefully search out signs of extremist views.

Within the Army, all soldiers were given additional training in recognizing and dealing with extremism and an Army investigation determined that fewer than one in a thousand soldiers had such views.

Burmeister and co-defendant Malcolm Wright, who is scheduled for trial next month, were kicked out of the Army, where they were assigned to the elite 82nd Airborne Division.

A 1996 probe at Fort Bragg found 22 soldiers, all white men, with ties or sympathies toward extremist groups. Nine of the 22 - included the three soldiers in these slayings - faced discharges or civilian or military trials, the 82nd Airborne Division said. The other 13 received various punishments.

Burmeister faces a death sentence or life in prison on the first-degree murder charges.

Prosecutors contended during two weeks of testimony that Burmeister killed the two on a dirt road near downtown Fayetteville to earn a spider web tattoo as part of an initiation of racist skinheads at nearby Fort Bragg.

The prosecutor's star witness, former soldier Randy Meadows, says Burmeister joked about earning the tattoo for killing a black person the night of the killings. Meadows said he, Burmeister and other soldier Malcolm Wright were riding out around and drinking that night.

Meadows said Burmeister had a 9mm pistol in his belt, got out of the car with fellow paratrooper Wright and he ``heard gunshots.'' Defense attorneys called Meadows ``a drunk shooting off his mouth'' who testified against Burmeister in return for a lighter sentence.

``The animal who took the lives of these two people executed them in as cold-blooded a manner as is possible,'' Cumberland County District Attorney Ed Grannis told the jury during closing arguments Tuesday.

Wright will be tried later this spring on similar charges. Meadows pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for his testimony. The three soldiers - all white - were discharged from the Army.

The prosecution also put a FBI expert on the stand who testified the DNA type from blood stains on clothing investigators recovered from Burmeister's trailer room off base matched those of the victims.

During closing arguments, defense attorneys questioned whether the clothes were Wright's instead of Burmeister's.

Meadows also testified that in their barracks in Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division, Burmeister talked about blowing up a synagogue and even looked in a telephone book for an address. Burmeister's former girlfriend also said on the stand that the defendant sang hate songs and told her his skinhead phase would end when he killed someone.

Burmeister's attorneys said the state's case was weak and testimony about their client's racist beliefs is irrelevant.

``A crime occurred and you simply don't know what happened,'' attorney Carl Ivarsson said during closing statements.

By EMERY P. DALESIO,Associated Press Writer Copyright ©1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or distributed.