Jailed Robber Convicted of 25-Year-Old Texas KFC Murders

A convicted robber already serving a life prison term for perjury was convicted of capital murder Tuesday for the fatal shootings of five people abducted from an East Texas Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant 25 years ago.

Darnell Hartsfield, 47, of Tyler, was found guilty on all five 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 two weeks to present their case against Hartsfield, whose cousin, Romeo Pinkerton, agreed to plead guilty to five murder charges midway through his trial a year ago. Hartsfield's defense began and ended Monday.

The notorious killings, one of the longest unresolved mass murder cases in Texas, occurred the night of Sept. 23, 1983, when the five 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 eliminated them.

"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 any more.

"The evidence will tell you what they can't, 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 very bad."

Hartsfield's 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 three days after the KFC slayings. Hartsfield pleaded guilty to the robbery and prosecutors argued the two 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 one of two 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 two 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 Hartsfield's 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 Hartsfield's but suggested it may have been mixed up with Hartsfield's 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 didn't have Hartsfield's 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 don't have it," she said.

Prosecutors took nearly two 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 six 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 scene.

One man, James Earl Mankins Jr., the son of a former state legislator, was indicted on five 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 third man was involved in the abduction and slayings although his identity has eluded authorities.