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Four white men ordered to pay $840,000 for Jim Crow-style killing of Mississippi black man

The Washington Post The Washington Post 2/03/2016 Yanan Wang
A Hinds County Sheriff’s Department deputy directs Deryl Dedmon in a 2012 photo. © AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool A Hinds County Sheriff’s Department deputy directs Deryl Dedmon in a 2012 photo.

Outings to “Jafrica” took place over the summer months in 2011. The Mississippi teenagers from predominantly white Rankin County piled into cars and drove into predominantly African American Jackson. These trips were named for a melange of “Jackson” and “Africa,” a nod to their specific and malicious mission: to terrorize strangers for no other reason than that they were black.

Sometimes they carried weapons; other times they operated solely with their fists. The young people targeted those who were homeless or drunk, because they would be easier to prey on and less likely to report an assault.

As U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves would later put it, these were the “unknown victims like the John Doe at the golf course who begged for his life.” These individuals were countless.

Just one of the innocents would not remain unknown, however, thanks to parking lot surveillance footage captured on the night of June 26, 2011.

James Craig Anderson was killed during a “Jafrica” outing that day, a hate crime which led to arrests and sentences for 10 young people involved, all of whom pleaded guilty.

On Monday, four of the most prominent co-conspirators — Deryl Dedmon, 23, John Rice, 23, Dylan Butler, 24 and William Montgomery, 26 — were ordered by a federal judge in Mississippi to pay $840,000 in restitution to his estate. The restitution case was prosecuted by Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

The four men were previously found guilty of committing a racially-motivated act that resulted in Anderson’s death, and are each serving between seven to 50 years in prison.

“When these defendants committed this brutal hate crime they not only took a man’s life, they also hurt a family,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

The likelihood of the men being able to pay remains unclear. While they share the liability, the Associated Press reported, each may have to pay the full amount if others do not contribute.

The amount, decided by an estimate of Anderson’s lost future wages, is the latest attempt to wring justice out of a crime that recalled Mississippi’s darkest years.

Like the other “Jafrica” targets, it could be said that Anderson, a 49-year-old auto plant worker, was at the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was more than that: as the facts of the case unspooled in gruesome detail and grainy reel, the circumstances of Anderson’s death seemed to have risen from a different era altogether.

That era was the Mississippi of the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. The Mississippi of Jim Crow and mass lynchings, that Anderson’s 89-year-old mother lived through, only to have her son killed by their specter.

On the night of June 26, 2011, two carloads of white teenagers pulled into a motel parking lot in which they spotted Anderson standing, CNN reported. “Let’s go f—k with some n—-ers,” Dedmon had said. Some members of the group jumped out and started beating Anderson, pummeling him to the ground.

Between hits, they screamed, “White Power!” They took Anderson’s cellphone, wallet and a ring.

As they finally seemed to leave him and he struggled to stand, the then-18-year-old Dedmon surged toward him in a Ford 250 truck and ran him over, continuing to speed away as Anderson laid lifeless.

“I ran that n—er over,” Dedmon laughed to his friends shortly afterwards.

The significance of these details were not lost on Judge Reeves when he brought down his sentence against Dedmon, Butler and Rice last February. The sentence was preceded by a powerful summation of Mississippi’s fraught racial history, of how the young men’s acts fit into that past all too well.

“New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in,” Reeves, the second African American appointed as federal judge in the state, said in lengthy speech to the defendants before the sentencing. (The speech can be read in full on NPR’s Code Switch.)

He continued:

Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today…They and their co-conspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi…causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again…A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget…This was the 2011 version of the n—gger hunts.

Reeves rattled off a list of African Americans from that time who were killed by lynchings, which were prevalent and treated as “public ritual.” The most well-known mob killing was that of Emmett Till, who was just 14 years old when he whistled at a white woman and proceeded to be beaten, mutilated, shot and dropped into a river.

An undated portrait of Emmett Louis Till, a black 14 year old Chicago boy. © AP Photo An undated portrait of Emmett Louis Till, a black 14 year old Chicago boy.

On June 26, 2011, Reeves said, Anderson’s name was added to that list.

In vigils and rallies following his death, family and friends remembered Anderson as a family man with a “quick wit and a demanding sense of style,” the New York Times reported.

Anderson had worked for seven years on the assembly line of a Nissan plant near Jackson, and he liked his job. Relatives said Anderson was a good cook and a gifted gardener. Above all, he never seemed to be in bad spirits.

“If you met him, the first thing you were going to see was that grand piano smile,” his eldest sister, Barbara Anderson Young, told the Times.

Anderson was also raising a 4-year-old with his partner of 17 years, James Bradfield.

According to the Times, there was no indication that the crime was motivated by Anderson’s sexual orientation. But Hinds County district attorney said the teenagers had a “history of harassing white teens who had black friends or gay teens.”

Initially, supporters of the teenagers defended them as “good boys” who were being misrepresented.

“He is not a racist or a murderer,” Rice’s great-aunt wrote in a Facebook post, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If anything, he is being tried by the media, suffering from reverse racism and placed in jail without bond.”

But the surveillance video, surfaced a couple months later, made the deliberateness of their actions clear. Several of the convicted have since apologized to Anderson’s family.

At the sentencing last February, Bradfield said their 4-year-old son was too scared to sleep by himself now because “he doesn’t want those people to get me,” the Clarion-Ledger reported.

“There’s no room on earth for people like you,” Bradfield said in a statement read by a prosecutor. He was too emotional to speak himself.

Reeves concluded his speech by lamenting that the crimes had been “perpetrated by our children” — “students who live among us…educated in our public schools…in our private academies.”

“I asked the question earlier, but what could transform these young adults into the violent creatures their victims saw?” the judge wondered. “In the eyes of these defendants (and their co-conspirators) the victims were doomed at birth.”

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