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

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

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

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

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

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

``Well, he took two lives and I think his should be takenalso,'' she said shen asked what she thought was a properpunishment.

But the mother of victim Michael James, Lillie G. James, does notfavor a death sentence in the case.

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

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

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

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

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

The jury took a lunch break after delivering its verdict. Thejury was scheduled to return at 2:30 p.m. The next order ofbusiness is sentencing - he faces death or life in prison withoutparole.

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

Within the Army, all soldiers were given additional training inrecognizing and dealing with extremism and an Army investigationdetermined that fewer than one in a thousand soldiers had suchviews.

Burmeister and co-defendant Malcolm Wright, who is scheduledfortrial next month, were kicked out of the Army, where they wereassigned 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 orcivilian or military trials, the 82nd Airborne Division said. Theother 13 received various punishments.

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

Prosecutors contended during two weeks of testimony thatBurmeister killed the two on a dirt road near downtown Fayettevilleto earn a spider web tattoo as part of an initiation of racistskinheads at nearby Fort Bragg.

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

Meadows said Burmeister had a 9mm pistol in his belt, got outofthe 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 executedthem in as cold-blooded a manner as is possible,'' CumberlandCounty District Attorney Ed Grannis told the jury during closingarguments Tuesday.

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

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

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

Meadows also testified that in their barracks in Fort Bragg's82nd Airborne Division, Burmeister talked about blowing up asynagogue and even looked in a telephone book for an address.Burmeister's former girlfriend also said on the stand that thedefendant sang hate songs and told her his skinhead phase would endwhen he killed someone.

Burmeister's attorneys said the state's case was weak andtestimony 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 WriterCopyright ©1997 AssociatedPress. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast,rewritten, or distributed.

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