Gaither Trial Updates

August 5, 1999

Man convicted of capital murder in slaying of gay man


Butler was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole



ROCKFORD, Alabama (AP) -- A man accused of helping kill a homosexual because of an unwanted advance was convicted Thursday of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Charles M. Butler Jr., 21, a boyish-looking former construction worker, was convicted in the slaying of Billy Jack Gaither, 39, who had his throat slashed and was beaten to death, and his body burned on a pile of old tires.

The victim's father had asked that Butler not be sentenced to death.

"I can't see taking another human beings life, no matter what," said Marion Gaither.

The father hoped his son would not be remembered as a gay murder victim, but as "one of the finest sons a man could want."

The case drew national attention after authorities said Gaither was killed because of his sexual orientation. President Clinton compared the Gaither slaying to the dragging death of a black man in Texas and the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual Wyoming college student who was lashed to a fence.

The man who committed the murder, Steven Mullins, 25, pleaded guilty earlier and testified against Butler. He was scheduled to be sentenced Friday and the prosecution said it will recommend he get life without parole.

Butler claimed he had no idea that Mullins, a skinhead, planned to kill Gaither when he was asked to meet the two men one February night.

In testimony, Mullins said he decided to kill Gaither because the victim had made a pass at him. He said he asked Butler along, and that Butler understood what was to happen.

Mullins cut Gaither's throat and when the bloodied victim fought back, cracked his head open with an ax handle.

"I was in shock and didn't know what to do," Butler, wiping away tears, said Thursday about his reaction to the murder.

But District Attorney Fred Thompson alleged Butler had numerous chances to flee from the crime or get help for the victim and did not.

"You went along every step of the way?" he said.

"Yes, sir," Butler replied.

Mullins said he and Gaither, a computer operator, had been drinking buddies until Gaither propositioned him. He testified that Butler went along with a plan to lure Gaither to a remote area on Feb. 19 with the promise of a sexual threesome -- something Butler repeatedly denied in his testimony.

Mullins said Butler helped burn the body on a pile of kerosene-soaked tires and torched Gaither's car. Butler admitted helping destroy evidence, but denied plotting to kill Gaither.

At 5-foot-3, 120 pounds, Butler was described by prosecutors as a boyish looking sixth-grade dropout who resembled Opie from "The Andy Griffith Show."

"You could put him on Mayberry," according to prosecutor Jeff Willis.

May 20, 1999

Gaither Accused Plead Innocent
      NewsPlanet Staff
      Thursday, May 20, 1999 / 07:45 PM

SUMMARY: The confessed Alabama gay-bash murderers say, "Not guilty" in court, 1 citing a mental defect - do we smell another "homosexual panic defense" in the offing?

The two men accused of the widely-reported Alabama bashing murder of gay Billy Jack Gaither both entered not guilty pleas on May 20. At an arraignment hearing in Rockford, Alabama, Charles Butler pleaded not guilty "by reason of mental defect or disease" and Steven Eric Mullins pleaded simply not guilty. Both are charged with capital murder.

Coosa County sheriffs had told the media in March that both men had made voluntary confessions while in custody. Butler had supposedly claimed he was angry at Gaither for having made a pass at him; this suggests that Butler's plea may signal a so-called "homosexual panic defense," in this case perhaps temporary insanity. However, Gaither's acquaintances say that a pass would have been entirely out of character for him, and according to the sheriffs the suspects said they had planned the attack for two weeks. Mullins had reportedly said he had not expected the attack to be a fatal one, but just a beating to teach Gaither a lesson, and that he himself was more of a bystander while Butler took the lead.

As authorities have presented the case, on February 19 the men arranged for Gaither to pick them up in his car; all three lived in the Sylacauga area and their families had known each other for years. At an isolated boat ramp at a reservoir, they beat him and stuffed him in the trunk of the car. At another isolated location on Peckerwood Creek, they beat him fatally, using an axe handle, and then made a pyre of automobile tires on which they burned his body. They drove his car away from that site and burned it as well.

Gaither was the subject of several memorial rallies against hate around the state, one drawing 300 people. His memory has also been invoked in lobbying for a hate crimes measure that would cover homophobic assaults; that bill passed the Alabama House this month and is pending in the Senate.

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