Aaron Wood, a 34-year-old North Philly handyman, was shot dead April 16, 1989, as he walked between two parked cars near Girard College.
Seventeen years later, police arrested Thomas Gibison, a violent skinhead from Newark, Del., who they said killed Wood as part of a racist ritual to "earn" a spiderweb tattoo.
But Gibison dodged a life sentence for first-degree murder when one holdout juror caused his 2008 trial to end in a bizarre split verdict. He was convicted of weapons offenses and conspiracy to commit murder - but found not guilty of the murder itself - and sentenced to a total of 12 1/2 to 25 years in prison.
And he's about to catch another break.
Because of an oversight that was discovered only on appeal, Gibison, 39, will be eligible for parole in 2014 or earlier because Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina imposed an "illegal sentence" for the conspiracy charge, according to Gibison's attorney, Michael Farrell.
Sarmina sentenced Gibison to 10 to 20 years, the current maximum allowed under law. What no one realized until recently is that the maximum sentence for conspiracy to commit murder was only five to 10 years in 1989, when the shooting occurred.
That means Gibison, who sports tattoos of Hitler and a swastika, will have at least five years subtracted from a prison sentence that prosecutors and the Wood family, who staunchly believe that Gibison is a murderer, already felt was far too light.
"I'm glad my mother is not here to hear this," said Wood's younger brother, Tyrone, 48, when informed that Gibison would likely be eligible for parole years earlier than expected. Their mother, Dorothy Wood, died in 2009.
"We didn't agree to it in the sense of, 'Hey, let's give this guy a break,' " said Hugh Burns, chief of the appeals unit in the District Attorney's Office. "We have absolutely no choice." Richard Iardella, a retired Wilmington detective who helped put Gibison behind bars on federal gun charges, said Gibison had previously threatened him and his wife, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he did it," Iardella said of the 1989 shooting, which authorities described as a racist "hunting" trip in which Gibison targeted a random black man.
"It was point-blank to the center of the forehead. I think he should have been convicted of first-degree murder," said former Assistant District Attorney Roger King, the renowned prosecutor who retired after the 12-day Gibison trial.
Reached last week, King, 66, described the Gibison case as "probably one of the most disappointing cases of my career," which spanned 35 years. And that was before he got word that Gibison's sentence would be reduced.
"It's hard to hear, because he's a very dangerous man," said King, a distant cousin of Martin Luther King Jr. who graduated from a segregated high school in Alabama. "He's a guy that believes in retaliation."
Farrell said King and others got his client all wrong. Gibison has disavowed his former neo-Nazi beliefs and poses no threat to Iardella or anyone else, Farrell said. More important, he added, Gibison didn't kill Wood.
"He was not involved in any trip to Philadelphia to kill anybody," Farrell said. "There was no trip to Philadelphia. And the web tattoo was completely unrelated to any homicide."
Farrell maintains that Wood was killed by a "couple of unknown black men." At trial, he said a drug debt might have been the motive.
The 2008 split verdict - a compromise between 11 jurors who wanted to convict Gibison of first-degree murder and one holdout juror who refused - remains a source of anger for both sides. Gibison's resentencing date has not been scheduled.
"He's still disappointed that he's in jail," Farrell said. "But, ultimately, we're moving forward in obtaining justice, piece by piece."
For Tyrone Wood, letting Gibison out of jail earlier is like pouring salt in a wound that the jury never closed.