URBANA - Kortel Burks had never been farther than 30 miles from his eastern Arkansas hometown of 1,800 when his father gave him permission to stay a few weeks with relatives in Urbana last summer.
The trip proved to be the longest of Burks' life in more ways than one. And it was one he no doubt couldn't wait to make in reverse
The 18-year-old Hughes, Ark., man was acquitted Friday in Champaign County Circuit Court of first-degree murder in the death of Robert James Nash, 55. Mr. Nash lived in Champaign all his life, but had fallen on hard times about a year before his death Aug. 8, 2002, and became homeless. He died from strangulation and being beaten.
Burks' father, Sammie Horton, said he planned to take his son home Friday night and would not allow him to return to this community.
?They do better in the country,? said Burks' mother, Freddie Mae Burks.
Horton said their son's involvement in Mr. Nash's death came as a shock when he was arrested Sept. 12. An anonymous letter to Champaign police led to the arrest of Burks and three other teens.
?It was the first time he'd ever been in trouble for anything,? Horton said.
Horton, who works for a farmer, said his son had been summoned out of class at Hughes High School where he was a junior to talk to police about Mr. Nash's death.
?I was working when I got a call from school that the police department came to pick him up. I was so disappointed I couldn't even go back to work,? Horton said.
The youngest of Horton's five children, who range in age from 18 to 21, - Burks has been in custody since his arrest Sept. 12. His trial began Monday before Judge Tom Difanis.
Horton said he talked to his son the day he was arrested.
?He told me, ?I was with them but I tried to help that old man,'? Horton recounted.
The seven women and five men hearing Burks' case heard the same story from Burks.
Hattie Paulk, Mr. Nash's sister, said she believed Burks and was glad he was acquitted.
?I told his parents to give him the first chapter of Proverbs - that's wisdom for young men to learn,? she said, adding that prosecutor Mick McAvoy did an ?outstanding job.? Burks was represented by David Rumley of Urbana, who had been appointed to represent him.
There were three other teens with Burks on Aug. 7 and 8 when Mr. Nash was attacked in a grassy area west of the Martin Luther King subdivision in northeast Champaign. One was Burks' cousin, Nathaniel White, 16, of the 1400 block of West Bradley Avenue in Urbana, with whom he was staying.
The others, Corinthian Howard, 18, of Dunbar Court in Urbana, and Ricky King Jr., 15, of the 1100 block of Dorsey Drive, Champaign, both testified that Burks took an active part with them and White in kicking, beating and stomping Mr. Nash.
They also said that Burks picked up Mr. Nash and slammed his body to the ground during the frenzy. There was also testimony that some of the teens slammed Mr. Nash's bicycle down on his chest.
White was tried and convicted of murder by a jury last month and is scheduled to be sentenced later this month. Testimony in the two trials to date has indicated that White was the one who initiated the attack on Mr. Nash as he slept in a sleeping bag.
The others joined in kicking Mr. Nash about the head and upper body. An autopsy showed he had been strangled, had suffered bleeding in the brain, multiple broken ribs, and had several teeth knocked out.
Burks maintained that he did not take part in any of the blows that caused those injuries.
Rumley painted a picture of Burks as the outsider in a group of would-be gang members who declined to join the others in drinking alcohol, smoking cannabis or participating in the beating of a helpless man.
?The testimony of Corinthian Howard and Ricky King can be summed up in the following words: ?I did it, but he's guilty,'? Rumley said, suggesting the two were lying about Burks' participation.
King, he said, is still awaiting trial and hoping to get a break.
Howard has already pleaded guilty for a 20-year sentence.
Rumley noted the pathologist said Mr. Nash died of strangulation and blunt force trauma, but none of the youths who testified said anything about choking or strangling Mr. Nash and there was no physical evidence that showed Burks did.
?The worst thing you heard about Kortel Burks is that he didn't report it. He's dealing with fear, regret, shame,? Rumley said of his client.
But McAvoy said Burks' statement that he struggled with the other three in defense of Mr. Nash was ?preposterous, ridiculous and just didn't happen.?
How was it, if Burks was actually pulling on Mr. Nash's legs while the others pulled on his upper body in an attempt to drown him in the Boneyard, as Burks said, that Mr. Nash's ?huge? pants weren't out of place, McAvoy asked.
How was it that if Burks was fighting with the other three that none of them ever turned on him, McAvoy asked.
And why, if he dragged Mr. Nash one way while the others dragged him another as Burks said, did the crime scene analysts find no evidence that Mr. Nash had been dragged.
McAvoy said he believed Burks participated in the beating but said no matter what level of his involvement, he was accountable for the actions of the others.
Jury foreman Rich Bristow said there was just not enough evidence to convict Burks.
?There were two different stories (Burks' version vs. King and Howard). You have to go on hard-core evidence and not the testimony of juveniles,? Bristow said.
The jury deliberated for four hours.
You can reach Mary Schenk at (217) 351-5313 or via e-mail at email@example.com.