Local News

Racial Killings

Posted March 6, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— A judge on Thursday sentenced ex-paratrooper and racist skinhead James Burmeister II to life in prison for the murders of two black people after a jury deadlocked over his sentence.

Judge Coy Brewer Jr. sentenced Burmeister to two life sentences without parole an hour after the judge disbanded the jury.

``The state has chosen to blame me for this. So be it for now,'' Burmeister spoke before Brewer sentenced him to the consecutive life terms. ``I'm not conceding. And I'm not going to quit. It's not over.''

After the sentencing, district attorney Ed Grannis Jr. said: ``We're delighted the (S.O.B.) will be put away for life.''

The jurors Thursday afternoon had said they could not break an 11-1 impasse over whether to sentence Burmeister to death or life in prison after 7-1/2 hours of deliberations.

The majority favored the death penalty, but under state law, Brewer had to impose the life sentences because it was not unanimous.

Burmeister, 21, of Thompson, Pa., was convicted last week of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy in the 1995 shooting deaths of Jackie Burden, 27, and Michael James, 36, on a Fayetteville street.

Testimony showed Burmeister joined a racist skinhead group after arriving at Fort Bragg as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. By the time he went hunting black people to kill, Burmeister had engaged in heavy drinking every day, singing extremist songs and giving Nazi salutes.

The killings brought a national outcry over racism in the military. An internal Army study showed racism wasn't a large problem, and 22 soldiers of the more than 40,000 at Fort Bragg were kicked out, sent to trial or punished for racist beliefs.

Brewer also sentenced Burmeister on a conspiracy charge from a minimum of 16 years, 4 months to a maximum of 20 years, 5 months in prison. The time for conspiracy will be tacked on to the consecutive life sentences.

Burmeister also apologized before the sentencing ``to all of the families involved. I know this has been a great strain on everbody.''

But he added: ``A lot of what we saw ... was smoke and mirrors.''

Lillie James, the mother of Michael James, said Burmeister's apology meant little.

``It's too late for that,'' she said. ``He has a heart as cold as steel.''

Some of the seven men and five women on the jury expressed disappointment and frustration over the outcome. They said a woman juror held out against their wish to give Burmeister the death penalty.

Jerry Olsen, 61, said that from the very beginning, ``nothing that the other jurors said made any difference to the person holding out for life imprisonment.

``It was a tug of war from point one,'' he said.

Juror Robby Mareau, 29, of Fayetteville said the 11 jurors who favored the death penalty wanted to send a message that ``society is tired of this kind of ignorance.''

``They got pretty lucky,'' he said of Burmeister and his defense team.

Juror Darcy Day, 28, of Stedman, was in tears. She said the woman who deadlocked the panel ``didn't really believe in the death penalty.''

``It's disappointing to me as a juror that 11 of us agree,'' she said, ``and what we feel is forfeited because of one person.''

Due to the deadlock, Brewer was required to impose life sentences for the murder convictions.

The jury foreman announced the deadlock at 3:45 p.m. He told Brewer the jury split was unchanged from Thursday morning, when it first apprised Brewer that it was unable to reach a verdict.

``Do you believe there is any reasonable possibility that with additional deliberation that this jury will be able to reach a unanimous recommendation?'' Brewer asked the jury.

``We do not,'' the foreman told Brewer.

Brewer declared the jury deadlocked and thanked the jurors for their effort. Jury selection started Jan. 21 and opening arguments were heard Feb. 11. Burmeister is the first of two former Fort Bragg soldiers to be tried in the deaths. Malcolm Wright, 22, is scheduled for trial March 31.

Prosecutors said the Burmeister case was about evil on a par with Adolf Hitler. Defense lawyers said there was no proof Burmeister fired the fatal shots on Dec. 7, 1995, and that he was too drunk to clearly think about committing the crime.

Deliberations, which began Wednesday, had gone about 5-1/2 hours when the jury sent out a note Thursday morning saying it had ``reached an impasse on both cases regarding a unanimous recommendation on punishment. We need your guidance.''

Brewer gave the jury a lunch break, then ordered it to continue deliberations and keep an open mind while listening to their peers.

At that point, defense attorney Larry McGlothlin asked Brewer to take the case away from the jury and impose a life sentence, but the judge refused.

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