In a bizarre split verdict, a jury of four black and eight white jurors yesterday acquitted skinhead Thomas Gibison of fatally shooting a black man to earn a spiderweb tattoo in his racist subculture.
The verdict in the 1989 killing of Aaron Wood stunned about 40 court watchers and left both sides scratching their heads.
They asked why the jury acquitted Gibison, 36, of Newark, Del., of first-degree murder and ethnic intimidation, yet convicted him of conspiracy to murder and weapons violations.
As jurors were polled, a tense Gibison appeared angry, his hands tightly clenched on the desk, while three rows behind him, his mother and uncle stared straight ahead, and a blond-haired girlfriend wiped tears.
All three declined to comment.
His attorney, Michael Farrell, acknowledged the partial win by playfully poking Gibison in the bicep - above the Hitler and swastika tattoo hidden by his white long-sleeve shirt. His infamous spiderweb tattoo was also covered.
Asked for his client's reaction, Farrell said Gibison was "terribly disappointed," just as Farrell was.
"I'm shocked," said Assistant District Attorney Roger King of the last verdict of his nearly 40-year career as a prosecutor. "There was more than enough evidence there."
Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina set Gibison's sentencing for July 25.
Gibison's troubles may not be over.
Federal authorities are looking into filing civil-rights violations or other charges against him.
Meantime, Farrell said he would seek bail for his client and ask the judge in post-verdict motions to overturn the charge of conspiracy to murder because it was inconsistent with the rest of the verdict.
The prosecution saw the bail issue differently.
"Bail? No way! This man is dangerous," said King. "He threatened a federal agent."
Jurors asked 11 questions during 11 hours of deliberations over three days during the 12-day trial. A key question was how a detective researched 37 unsolved murders and determined that Gibison killed Wood.
Four jurors who were contacted after the verdict declined to comment.
Immediately after the verdict, prosecutor King called the victim's youngest brother, Tyrone Wood, and uncle, Arnold Wynn, into a side room, telling them: "Don't try to make any sense out of it."
The verdict meant Gibison and an accomplice "talked about it, left to do it [by driving to Philadelphia]. They didn't do it, but [Gibison] had a gun," King added.
"It's a compromise," he added. "I think someone didn't want to sentence him to life."
Shaking his head and throwing up his hands, Wood said, "I don't see it. How can you be convicted of conspiracy to murder, but not murder? I don't understand."
Wood called the verdict "a travesty."
Wynn worried about what to tell the victim's mother, Dorothy Wood, 72, who has suffered heart disease and stroke, which he believes was caused by the stress of wondering for 19 years who killed her son.
"She'll never be able to reconcile this," he added. "That [court] document will always say 'not guilty.' "
Farrell had argued that Wood was killed by guns and drugs, and characterized the victim as a drug dealer. But King, in his closing, did not address the issues raised by the defense.
Nevertheless, King assured the family that, "bottom line," Wood might have been a drug user but, with only "$29.25 in his sock" he wasn't selling drugs. "A dealer? No way!"
Farrell said that jurors had "enough courage" - and reasonable doubt - to find Gibison not guilty of murder and ethnic intimidation, but "not enough courage to let him go scott free."
"They came up with their best answer for an American jury," he added. "They had to see my client as a dangerous person" yet they were "not convinced the crime was race-based," he added.
He attributed the murder trial to a "scorned girlfriend" who told authorities a story and they "had to find a crime that matched."
Farrell said the accomplice, Craig Peterson, received immunity, calling it "an offer he couldn't refuse." And then Peterson told authorities what they wanted to hear, he said.
King told the Wood family that he had offered Gibison a pretrial deal: plead guilty to third-degree murder in return for a 17-to-35 year prison sentence, instead of a life term.
Farrell recalled that the offer was 20 to 40 years in prison.
Next month, King said, 'It is my fondest hope" that the judge will sentence Gibison to 13 1/2 to 27 years in prison, including 10 to 20 years for first-degree conspiracy and three to seven years for third-degree felony on the weapons violations.
King described Gibison's related prior crimes, which were not admitted as evidence in the trial.
"Fourteen days after [the Wood] murder, [Gibison] shot up a car with five individuals inside" at the Christiana Mall in Delaware and was sentenced to three years in prison.
After Gibison was released from prison, "he starts collecting guns. He became a felon in possession of an armory, with 11,000 rounds of ammunition," King said. "He gets 10 years on that" [in federal prison].
Asked if Gibison had changed, King replied, "With an Adolf Hitler tattoo on his biceps, yeah, he's changed. He got more sophisticated." *
Daily News staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this report.