White supremacist goes on trial in black immigrant's slaying

CNN News/September 3, 1999

Denver -- The star witness in the slaying of a West African immigrant may not be called to testify when the death penalty trial begins for the white supremacist charged in the killing.

Nathan Thill, 21, is accused of murdering Oumar Dia because he was black and of paralyzing Jeannie VanVelkinburgh, who tried to come to Dia's aid in the late-night attack at a downtown bus stop.

Ms. VanVelkinburgh's testimony helped convict Thill's companion, Jeremiah Barnum. But Barnum was later granted a new trial because a judge ruled VanVelkinburgh's emotional behavior -- which included screaming, crying and belching -- jeopardized Barnum's right to a fair trial.

Prosecutors refused to comment on whether they plan to call Ms. VanVelkinburgh during Thill's trial, which was scheduled to begin today in Denver District Court.

Legal analyst Andrew Cohen of Denver said prosecutors must decide whether Ms. VanVelkinburgh's testimony is crucial to their case.

"She is a witness who brings a lot to the prosecution ... but her credibility is in doubt and she might bring in a big risk," he said.

Thill, 21, is charged with ethnic intimidation, first-degree murder and attempted murder.

The jury selection process is expected to be arduous because of publicity in a crime that outraged residents and prompted anti-hate rallies and prayer vigils.

A native of Diorbivol, Senegal, the slightly statured Dia was a hotel bellhop, sending his earnings home to support his family and fellow villagers.

Both Thill and Barnum, who worked at a service station, allegedly had ties to the skinhead movement. On Nov. 19, 1997, Dia, just off work, and Ms. VanVelkinburgh were waiting at the bus stop when Thill and Barnum approached. Thill knocked a baseball cap from Dia's head, called him a racial epithet and asked him whether he was prepared to die, police said.

Ms. VanVelkinburgh has testified that Barnum put Dia in a headlock while Thill pulled out a gun and shot Dia several times. When she tried to intervene, Ms. VanVelkinburgh said Thill shot her in the spine, pointed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger twice.

The weapon was empty.

After his arrest, Thill told several media outlets, police and prosecutors that he shot Dia because he was black.

Thill acknowledged in news interviews that he was a white supremacist and Dia was "in the enemy's uniform."

In a subsequent ruling, a court ruled Thill's statements to police could not be used during the trial because he was not properly advised of his constitutional rights, but the statements to the media may be used because Thill sought out reporters voluntarily.

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