White Supremacist Accused of Beating a Black Man to be Prosecuted as a Hate Crime
This is the first time this has happened in Harris County,” said community activist Quannel X in regards to Lykos’ decision to upgrade charges to a hate crime.
By Eryn Roberts
Amid pressure by community activists, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos plans to prosecute the case of a self-proclaimed white supremacist accused of beating a black man at a downtown Houston bus stop last month as a hate crime, an upgrade from misdemeanor assault charges.
“This is the first time this has happened in Harris County,” said community activist Quannel X in regards to Lykos’ decision to upgrade charges to a hate crime.
The incident occurred on Aug. 13 at a bus stop at Travis and McKinney where 29-year-old father Yondell Johnson was sitting at nearly midnight when the four men allegedly approached him.
“They came up and walked behind me and one of them said, ‘Hey bro you got the time?’ and I said no and the other said, ‘Why you called that nigger a bro. You know you shouldn’t call no nigger no bro’,” Johnson said.
From that point Johnson was surrounded, repeatedly called the N-word and physically attacked by Charles Cannon, 26, Brian Kerstetter, 32, Michael McLaughlin, 40, Joseph Staggs, 48. Kerstetter, Cannon and McLaughlin all have criminal records in Harris County.
According to court documents, prosecutors filed a motion Aug. 26 stating they believe Cannon, charged with misdemeanor assault in the beating of, Johnson committed the crime and intentionally selected the victim because of Cannon’s “bias and prejudice against a group identified by race, color, national origin and ancestry.”
It is unknown whether three other suspects accused in the assault will also be prosecuted under the hate crime statute. Staggs and McLaughlin are scheduled to appear in court Tuesday, and Kerstetter’s next court appearance is set for Sept. 21.
Cannon, McLaughlin and Staggs are in the Harrris County Jail, and Kerstetter is reportedly in the City Jail. Bail for all four suspects is $50,000 each.
Johnson said he is glad prosecutors pursued the hate crime allegations and hopes the three other suspects will also be tried the same way. However, he still feels the punishment could be heftier.
“A hate crime is something serious, and it could happen to anyone else,” he said. “I don’t think it should just be a misdemeanor charge.”
Deric Muhammad, who held a news conference about Johnson’s case in front of the Harris County Criminal Courthouse on Aug. 24, called the decision to prosecute the assault as a hate crime “bittersweet”. “It is a relief, but it is disconcerting that the process was so slow,” he said.
Although charges are upgraded, the maximum punishment for a class A misdemeanor does not change. The maximum possible punishment, up to a year in jail, does not change with a hate crime finding. However, minimum jail time for the charge can be 180 days if the jury makes a finding of bias or prejudice. Otherwise, there is no minimum jail time for class A misdemeanor convictions.
For local activists however, prosecuting the case as a hate crime is as much about the principle as it is about punishment and hope this will serve as a cautionary tale for those considering committing similar offenses.