A Houston jury has convicted three men who sported white supremacist tattoos on federal hate crime charges for carrying out a racially motivated assault on a 29-year-old black man they cornered at a bus stop.
Charles Cannon, 26, Michael McLaughlin, 41, and Brian Kerstetter, 32, face up to 10 years in prison when they are sentenced in July by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt of the Southern District of Texas. Prosecutors dismissed charges against a fourth man, Joseph Staggs, who testified against the others.
The convictions were the first in Houston under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, enacted in 2009.
With the three guilty verdicts on Monday, 15 defendants have been convicted in a total of nine cases nationwide in which 34 defendants were charged under the federal statute, the Houston Chronicle reported today.
Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said the Houston case shows “that hate crimes are far too common in this country.”
“The Justice Department will continue to use every available tool to identify and prosecute hate crimes whenever and wherever they occur,” Perez said in a statement released by the DOJ.
Initially, the Houston defendants were charged with misdemeanor assault by state prosecutors, who said they intended to upgrade the charges to hate crimes during the trial. The state charges were dismissed when DOJ took over the prosecution.
Prosecutors said the three defendants and the fourth man met on the streets and “bonded” over their white supremacist tattoos. They removed their shirts and approached Yondell Johnson, 29, as he waited for a bus shortly before midnight on Aug. 13.
One of the men asked the victim for the time before another used a racial epithet. The four then surrounded the victim, an amateur boxer who backed up against a pole and fought them off for about 10 minutes. Finally, one of the men grabbed his ankles and pulled him to the ground. One held him down while the others stomped and kicked him.
"I couldn't believe this was happening,” the victim said. “I thought I was on my way to dying, especially when they got me on the ground.”
During the trial, jurors saw a portion of the attack captured on city surveillance cameras, the Houston newspaper reported.
After they were arrested, a police officer heard McLaughlin and Cannon yell racial slurs at black officers who responded, court documents say.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen L. Morris said he hopes the convictions “send a powerful public message.”
“The Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a tool the FBI will use to aggressively investigate and prosecute hate crimes as a felony offense,” Morris said.