Jury convicts man in 1983 Kilgore KFC slayings trial
A convicted robber already serving a life prison term for perjury was
convicted of capital murder Tuesday for the fatal shootings of 5 people
abducted from an East Texas Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant 25 years
Darnell Hartsfield, 47, of Tyler, was found guilty on all 5 counts. He
stood between his attorneys and had no visible reaction to the verdicts.
He received an automatic life sentence after prosecutors chose not to seek
the death penalty.
The jury deliberated less than two hours Tuesday afternoon after
prosecutors took nearly 2 weeks to present their case against Hartsfield,
whose cousin, Romeo Pinkerton, agreed to plead guilty to 5 murder charges
midway through his trial a year ago. Hartsfields defense began and ended
The notorious killings, one of the longest unresolved mass murder cases in
Texas, occurred the night of Sept. 23, 1983, when the 5 victims were taken
from the KFC store in Kilgore during an apparent robbery. They were driven
about 15 miles to a remote oilfield road and fatally shot. Their bodies
were found the next morning.
"It's a very emotional case," Hartsfield's lawyer, Donald Killingsworth,
told jurors in his closing argument. He looked toward several victims'
relatives among spectators in the courtroom and said they deserved to have
"someone convicted and punished."
"I can understand that, I really can," he said. "But just because they
deserve that closure, these wonderful people, just because they need that,
is not a reason to ignore the lack of evidence against Darnell Hartsfield.
Nothing in the evidence puts Darnell Hartsfield in that store, robbing and
kidnapping people and then taking them to Rusk County and killing them."
Lisa Tanner, an assistant Texas attorney general who is lead prosecutor,
said no witnesses could talk about the shootings because the killers
"They made sure who was there to speak against them and who wasn't," she
said in her closing arguments. "The people who could best tell you what
happened aren't here anymore.
"The evidence will tell you what they cant, and the evidence will tell you
one of the people responsible is here."
She described the crime as "one big long armed robbery that turned very
Hartsfields trial was moved more than 100 miles to Bryan because of
publicity in the Kilgore area.
Earlier Tuesday, defense attorneys argued for nearly an hour outside the
jury's presence about whether prosecutors could allow a former Tyler
convenience store clerk to testify how she was robbed 3 days after the KFC
slayings. Hartsfield pleaded guilty to the robbery and prosecutors argued
the 2 robberies were noticeably similar.
State District Judge Clay Gossett allowed the testimony. A woman described
the robbery 25 years ago and said she identified Hartsfield as the gunman
and 1 of 2 men who threatened to kill her and a co-worker as they were
ordered to lay face down on the floor. The KFC victims were found face
down on the oilfield road.
"Don't put your heads down," Tanner urged jurors in her closing. "Don't
deny the evil that is here. The evidence is here. The law is here. We know
this defendant is one of the people responsible for this."
On Monday, defense lawyers started and ended their case, calling only four
witnesses and reading the grand jury testimony of a now-deceased Texas
Ranger who was one of the investigators of the slayings. Through that
testimony, they attempted to show how 2 Texas Rangers described different
places where a box with blood spots was found.
The box is key because the blood on it was identified through DNA testing
as Hartsfields and led to his indictment, although he has denied being in
the restaurant. Blood on a napkin was tied to Pinkerton.
Defense attorneys never challenged whether the blood was Hartsfields but
suggested it may have been mixed up with Hartsfields other crimes or that
it was planted by investigators.
"The only thing we questioned is how the blood got there," Killingsworth
said. "We don't know. Nobody knows."
"Do you really think they would be so stupid to work on the biggest thing
to happen in their community and they would submit evidence in the wrong
case?" Tanner said. "That's preposterous."
She said the idea of planting the evidence also made no sense because
authorities didnt have Hartsfields blood at the time and records show the
box and napkin were submitted to crime lab technicians within a few weeks
of the crime.
"You can't plant something if you dont have it," she said.
Prosecutors took nearly 2 weeks to build their circumstantial case against
Hartsfield, who already has been serving a life prison term for aggravated
perjury in a KFC-related case because of 6 earlier felony convictions.
The murder victims were David Maxwell, 20; Mary Tyler, 37; Opie Ann
Hughes, 39; Joey Johnson, 20; and Monte Landers, 19. All but Landers
worked at the restaurant about 25 miles east of Tyler and 115 miles east
of Dallas. Landers was a friend of Maxwell and Johnson and was visiting
them as the restaurant was closing for the night.
The investigation was stymied for years by leads that went bad and haunted
by what investigators at both trials have described as a circus crime
One man, James Earl Mankins Jr., the son of a former state legislator, was
indicted on 5 counts of capital murder in 1995 after a fingernail
recovered from clothing of a KFC victim was said to match Mankins. The
charges were dropped later that year after the fingernail was determined
to be from one of the victims. Mankins' name, however, continued to
surface during this trial, with prosecutors acknowledging he incorrectly
was a prime suspect for years until scientific advances absolved him.
Defense lawyers insisted he and not Hartsfield was involved in the crime.
Prosecutors have said DNA tests show a 3rd man was involved in the
abduction and slayings although his identity has eluded authorities.
(source: Dallas Morning News)