EAST LIVERPOOL - While the family of Kevin Burks is pleased with the Ohio Parole Board's decision to keep one of his killers in prison, defendant Robert Carpenter's stepdaughter said he is haunted every day by the crime that has kept him behind bars long enough.
Burks' sisters, Jennifer and Jacqueline Hicks, testified before the parole board on Feb. 21, as did Carpenter's stepdaughter Crystal Horan, who participated from Florida via video conference.
His sisters had launched a petition drive to convince the board that Carpenter should remain locked up at the Southern Correctional Institution in Mansfield following his conviction in 1987 for murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
Carpenter, 49, will spend at least another nine years in prison.
Burks, 24, was lured from his grandmother's house in the city by Carpenter and his co-defendants David Lee Hudson, Peter Martin and Billy Wayne Smith.
They drove him to a remote location in Brush Creek Township in Jefferson County, where he was tortured, stabbed and shot and then finally killed by having his throat slashed, according to reports.
Carpenter, also 24 at the time, maintained during the subsequent arrest and trials that he had not taken part in Burks' torture or murder but that he was too afraid of his cohorts to stop them or tell anyone later about what had happened.
He later turned state's evidence against his co-defendants, resulting in a lesser sentence for Carpenter than the others received.
Horan, on the other hand, spoke to the board about her stepfather's failing health since he's been incarcerated and also about his attempt to become a productive citizen during those 25 years.
This week, the Hicks twins said they were grateful to the parole board and especially to those people who signed petitions on their brother's behalf.
"We are extremely happy and relieved with the parole board's decision. Our grateful appreciation to the board," Jennifer said.
Throughout the trials of the four defendants, Burks' murder was described as racially motivated, with testimony given that the four white men set out to find a black person the night of the killing. Failing to find that specific man, they set their sites on Burks.
However, Horan said the crime was never racially motivated, that her stepfather is not a racist and, in fact, accepted bi-racial dating and children in the family.
"I know that, at first, the 'n' word was used (the night of the murder), but I know that would never come out of my dad's mouth," Horan said in a phone conversation.
Jennifer Hicks disagreed, saying, "Our family never made this a racial issue. Peter Martin, David Hudson, Billy Wayne Smith and Robert Carpenter did when they murdered a man for the color of his skin."
Horan said her stepfather is not like his co-defendants, against whom he testified.
"I don't know why they keep saying he's like the other three. Even the plea agreement said he wasn't the perpetrator. Even the letter Sheriff (Fred) Abdalla gave to the parole board said he wasn't the perpetrator but just that he didn't do anything to help," Horan said. "He would have been body No. 2 for them if he had tried to make them stop. He did tell them to stop, it had gone too far. He lives every single day with the haunting thought of not helping Kevin Burks. Every day, he's probably thought about what he could have done differently."
But Burks' sisters don't agree with Jennifer saying, "It was a self-serving act (for Carpenter to offer evidence against the others). He didn't do anything to save my brother's life. He gave my brother a life sentence without a trial, per se, and he should get the same."
Jacqueline agreed, saying, "This person knew my brother's life was going to end, and for that I am glad he will never see freedom. Kevin has no voice, so ... I will speak for him and make sure justice will always be served in his name."
Horan said her father signed a plea bargain giving him 15 years to life, but that his lack of education - and the ability to read and write well - may have led him to believe it said something else.
She maintained that, though the written agreement does state that, he was told verbally if he testified against the others, he would serve only eight years and nine months.
"Abdalla told my mom my dad did the right thing. I remember him saying, 'Your daddy will be out before you're in high school,'" Horan recalled.
In tears, she said, "He really thought this was the time he'd be released. He was afraid to call home (after the board denied his parole), thinking we'd given up on him."
Carpenter suffered a heart attack in 2004 and two more the week of the parole hearing, according to Horan.
During his incarceration, her father has earned his GED, completed anger management classes, attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and learned different trades, according to Horan.
Although the Hicks sisters said previously that, unlike his co-defendant David Hudson, Carpenter had never written a letter of apology for his deeds, Horan said it came out during the parole hearing that he had, in fact, written such a letter as part of one of his classes in prison.
She could not explain why Burks' sisters had never seen the letter, saying perhaps it went to his mother, who is now deceased.
Asked if she thinks her stepfather regrets his part in the crime, she said without hesitation, "Absolutely. He's haunted by it every day," saying he has "totally changed" since his incarceration, going from a 24-year-old partier who liked to drink and do drugs into a 49-year-old man who attends church and reads the Bible.
"He's not this young punk now who thinks about drugs every day. He's gotten into trouble once in 25 years, for having a lighter," Horan said.
And, while Burks' sisters and his late mother have often talked about the loss of their brother and son, Horan said, "Kevin Burks' family wasn't the only one who lost someone that night. I feel I'm losing mine, too."
She also took issue with current Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin testifying against her father at the parole hearing, saying, "She was 17 when this happened; she had nothing to do with this case."
A phone call to Hanlin for comment was not returned.
Jennifer and Jacqueline will speak about the impact their brother's death had on their family during a Black History Month presentation at 6 p.m. Saturday at the United Brethren Church in Pleasant Heights in East Liverpool.
Through his stepdaughter, Carpenter was invited to call with comments for this article, but Horan said his attorney advised against it.