Ex-Soldier Guilty of Killing Black Couple
A former Army paratrooper and member of a white supremacist group was convicted Thursday in the murders of a black couple that prompted a worldwide investigation into the level of extremist activity within the Army’s ranks.
A North Carolina jury found James N. Burmeister, 21, guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy in the December 1995 shooting deaths of Jackie Burden, 22, and Michael James, 36. The couple was shot at close range while strolling down a dirt road near Ft. Bragg, home to the U.S. Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Burmeister, who authorities said targeted the couple simply because they were black. The sentencing phase of the case was scheduled to begin today.
The shootings prompted an Army investigation that revealed 22 soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division had “active, passive or former links” to extremist groups. Nine of the 22 faced discharges or civilian or military trials, whereas the other 13 received lesser punishments.
In recent years, racist skinheads have grown into a troubling social phenomenon. In the last decade, as many as 41 murders have been attributed to skinheads, including 22 murders of racial minorities or homosexuals, according to figures compiled by the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith, which tracks extremist groups.
David Rosenberg, a researcher for the organization, said racist skinheads also have been blamed for thousands of assaults, fire bombings and desecrations. The group estimates that there are about 3,300 skinheads scattered across 40 states.
Burmeister, 21, of Thompson, Pa., and co-defendant Malcolm Wright, who is scheduled for trial next month, were among those booted from the Army in the wake of the December 1995 attack.
During the two-week trial, prosecutors argued that Burmeister killed the couple merely to earn a spider web tattoo as part of a rite of membership for racist skinheads at Ft. Bragg. The jury also heard testimony that Burmeister often said blacks should be rounded up and shipped to Africa or shot.
Former soldier Randy Meadows, who became the prosecution’s star witness after pleading guilty to reduced charges, testified that the murders culminated a string of racist violence carried out by Meadows, Burmeister and Wright.
Police have said that on the night of the killings, the three white soldiers had set out to harass and beat blacks after drinking at a local strip bar. Meadows testified that Burmeister was armed with a 9-millimeter handgun. He said Burmeister and Wright emerged from their car to confront the couple and then shot each multiple times in the head.
After Burmeister’s arrest, a search of his off-base apartment uncovered weapons, white supremacist literature and a Nazi flag that once hung in his barracks. Months before the double murders, Burmeister had received an Army reprimand and counseling because of his extremist views. His security clearance had also been revoked after a fight with a black soldier.
A three-month Army study prompted by the shootings concluded that extremist groups, although active in communities outside Army installations, were not recruiting soldiers.
The study nonetheless recommended that the Army draft clearer rules on participating in extremist organizations, conduct more-thorough screenings of recruits to keep out those with extremist views and institute new training courses about extremist activity.