August 13, 2011 is an anniversary date that Yondell Johnson, a young black Houstonian, will be sure not to celebrate. And while he may not be celebrating what happened to him, he should be relieved at the ruling that was rendered against his attackers.
On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department reported that U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt sentenced Brian Kerstetter to 33 to 77 months in prison; Michael McLaughlin, 41, to a 30 month prison term, and Charles Cannon, 26, to a 37-month prison term. All three must also serve three years of supervised release after their prison terms.
This was the first conviction in Texas, and in Harris County, under the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The hate crimes law was passed by Congress in 2009, and gives the FBI authority to investigate violent crimes committed because of gender, race, color, religion or national origin.
Johnson, a 29-year-old father at the time, had just come from visiting his 12-year-old daughter, and was approached by three white males while he was sitting at a downtown Houston bus stop on Travis and McKinney.
That trio of white males, who were later found to be white supremacists, severely beat and assaulted Johnson for the crime of being black in America.
The trio was arrested at the scene after a witness to the assault called 911. They were eventually charged, prosecuted, and now have been sentenced by a federal judge in Houston as a hate crime, for the racially motivated beating of Johnson.
RACISM ON DISPLAY
Authorities said that the trio displayed tattoos that represented their white supremacist beliefs, and attacked Johnson because he was black. Authorities also said that Johnson was repeatedly punched and kicked in the head and body, and that at least one of the attackers used a racial slur during the ordeal.
One tattoo was a face tattoo of a lightning bolt in the shape of the Nazi SS symbol. Another was an image of a woodpecker, a symbol that identifies the wearer as a “peckerwood’’ or follower of white power. Another was of a man wearing a Star of David being stabbed.
During sentencing, two of the three defendants apologized to Judge Hoyt, but claimed that their tattoos were not representative of who they really were, but was a result of them joining white supremacist gangs to gain protection and survive as young men in tough Texas prisons.
Authorities stood firm on their conviction, however, that the beating of Johnson was a hate crime motivated by race. They said four men, who had stripped off their shirts to display their racist tattoos, made an unprovoked attack on Johnson.
Brian Kerstetter told the judge that he did not assault Johnson because of his race. “All I did was break up a fight,” said Kerstetter. “I’m not a hater.”
Because of his extensive criminal record, Kerstetter received his 33 to 77 month prison sentence.
Michael McLaughlin told the court he had a drinking problem but said he wasn’t a white supremacist.
McLaughlin, who also addressed the judge, stated, “I just want the court to know just because I got these tattoos I’m not a card-carrying member of a white supremacist group.”
His defense attorney, Richard Kuniansky, said his client was a homeless alcoholic whose only racist act was to use the N-word in cursing black Houston police officers who arrested him after the attack.
“And at the end of the day, they had two pieces of evidence; the use of the N-word and tattoos,” argued Kuniansky. “The government has to prove hate as the motive.”
DEFIANT TO THE END
Charles Cannon, who has several tattoos of woodpeckers on his neck and chest that are synonymous with the white supremacist movement, chose not to address the court. His defense attorney, Gus Saper, told the judge his client was sorry, however.
“You don’t have black friends if you are a racist,” said Saper. “My client, at trial, put on several witness and one was his best friend who was black. I think Yondell Johnson decided they were a threat, and he decided to confront them about it.”
Federal prosecutor Saeed Mody told the judge that the attack on Johnson was not something that had an understandable motive, like robbery or because of a personal issue that the men may have had with Johnson; they argued that it was because Johnson was a black man in America.
“It was four on one. ... It’s an act of cowardice,” said Mody. “He (Johnson) was attacked simply because of his race and skin color,” Mody said.
Prosecutors dismissed charges against the fourth suspect, Joseph Staggs, 49, because he testified against the other three defendants.
RELIEF FOR JOHNSON
Upon hearing that the persecutors were going to be tried under the hate crime law, Johnson stated he was glad.
“I don’t think something like this should ever be a misdemeanor charge,” said Johnson. “A hate crime is something serious, and you don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
Johnson did not attend the sentencing on Monday, but Houston community activist Quanell X said that Johnson communicated with him that he was happy “that justice was served.”