In hour-long closings yesterday before a Common Pleas Court jury, two very different images emerged of the killing 19 years ago in North Philadelphia of Aaron Wood, a drug dealer.
Was the killing of a small-timer in the drug trade just that - the result of a drug dispute? Or was the killing part of a racist initiation in which murder was required?
A jury of four African Americans and eight whites today will begin weighing the case against Thomas Gibison, 37, of Newark, Del., a skinhead who is charged in the shooting death of Wood, 33.
Wood was shot in the head as he walked from between two parked cars in the 1300 block of North Stillman Street on April 16, 1989. The slaying stymied investigators for years until recently, when a former girlfriend of the defendant's told FBI investigators and authorities in Delaware about Gibison's alleged role in it.
Before a packed courtroom yesterday, Assistant District Attorney Roger King, a veteran prosecutor who is working his last trial for the District Attorney's Office, laid out the case against Gibison.
A friend of the defendant's, Craig Peterson, 38, also of Newark, had testified how he and Gibison drove from Wilmington to Philadelphia for the specific purpose of finding an African American to kill.
King said Gibison was looking to kill any black person to obtain a kind of skinhead merit badge: a tattoo on his left elbow of a spider's web. The tattoo was to proclaim that Gibison had killed an African American.
At one point in his closing, King turned to Gibison and said: "You can't kill a man just because he's black."
Then, King addressed the jury. He raised his eyes, cited his four decades as a prosecutor, and said: "This is not 1955, 1945 or 1965."
Before the closings, Gibison's lawyer, J. Mitchell Farrell, presented three witnesses who knew Wood.
Larry Pinder, Edwin Butts and Sabrina Savage, a former girlfriend of the victim's, said Wood was a drug dealer who had been threatened by a supplier. The three also said, in varying accounts, that they had seen three black men running from the shooting scene.
In his closing remarks, Farrell contended that the case made no sense and that its foundation was faulty.
He cited the immunity in the case granted Peterson by federal authorities to cast doubt on his testimony. He spoke against the use of testimony from a former - and bitter - girlfriend of the defendant. And he reminded jurors of the high homicide rate in Philadelphia.
He also suggested that federal authorities, in their zeal to go after skinheads in the aftermath of 9/11, were conspiring against Gibison, an avowed white supremacist.