April 25th, 2024

White former officers get sentences of 10 to 40 years in torture of 2 Black men in Mississippi

By Michael Goldberg And Emily Wagster Pettus, The Associated Press on March 21, 2024.

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – A federal judge on Thursday finished handing down prison terms of about 10 to 40 years to six white former Mississippi law enforcement officers who pleaded guilty to breaking into a home without a warrant and torturing two Black men in an hourslong attack that included beatings, repeated uses of stun guns and assaults with a sex toy before one of the victims was shot in the mouth.

U.S. District Judge Tom Lee called the culprits’ actions “egregious and despicable” and gave sentences near the top of federal guidelines to five of the six men who attacked Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker.

The exception was for Joshua Hartfield, 32, a former police officer who did not work in a sheriff’s department with the others and was not a member of a “Goon Squad.” He was the last of the six former officers sentenced over three days this week, months after they all pleaded guilty.

Before giving Hartfield a 10-year sentence Thursday, Lee said Hartfield did not have a history of using excessive force and was roped into the brutal episode by one of the former deputies, Christian Dedmon, who received a 40-year sentence. Lee said, however, that Hartfield failed to intervene in the violence and participated in a cover-up.

Brett McAlpin, 53, who was the fourth highest-ranking officer in the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office, received a sentence of about 27 years on Thursday. McAlpin nodded to his family in the courtroom and offered an apology before the judge sentenced him.

“This was all wrong, very wrong. It’s not how people should treat each other and even more so, it’s not how law enforcement should treat people,” said McAlpin, who did not look at the victims as he spoke. “I’m really sorry for being a part of something that made law enforcement look so bad.”

Lee sentenced Christian Dedmon, 29, to 40 years and Daniel Opdyke, 28, to 17.5 years on Wednesday. He gave about 20 years to Hunter Elward, 31, and 17.5 years to Jeffrey Middleton, 46, on Tuesday. All but Hartfield served with the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office outside Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson.

Arguing for a lengthy sentence, federal prosecutor Christopher Perras said McAlpin was not technically a member of the Goon Squad but “molded the men into the goons they became.”

Parker told investigators that McAlpin functioned like a “mafia don” as he instructed the officers throughout the evening. Prosecutors said other deputies often tried to impress McAlpin, and Opdyke’s attorney said Wednesday that his client saw McAlpin as a father figure.

The younger deputies tried to wrap their heads around how they had started off “wanting to be good law enforcement officers and turned into monsters,” Perras said Thursday.

“How did these deputies learn to treat another human being this way? Your honor, the answer is sitting right there,” Perras said as he turned and pointed at McAlpin.

In March 2023, months before federal prosecutors announced charges in August, an investigation by The Associated Press linked some of the deputies to at least four violent encounters with Black men since 2019 that left two dead and another with lasting injuries.

The officers invented false charges against the victims, planting a gun and drugs at the scene of their crime, and stuck to their cover story for months until finally admitting that they tortured Jenkins and Parker. Elward admitted to shoving a gun into Jenkins’ mouth and firing it in what federal prosecutors said was meant to be a “mock execution.”

In a statement read by his attorney Thursday, Jenkins said he “felt like a slave” and was “left to die like a dog.”

“If those who are in charge of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office can participate in these kinds of torture, God help us all. And God help Rankin County,” Jenkins said.

The terror began Jan. 24, 2023, with a racist call for extrajudicial violence when a white person complained to McAlpin that two Black men were staying with a white woman at a house in Braxton. McAlpin told Dedmon, who texted a group of white deputies asking if they were “available for a mission.”

“No bad mugshots,” Dedmon texted – a green light, according to prosecutors, to use excessive force on parts of the body that wouldn’t appear in a booking photo.

Dedmon also brought Hartfield, who was instructed to cover the back door of the property during their illegal entry.

Once inside, the officers mocked the victims with racial slurs and shocked them with stun guns. They handcuffed them and poured milk, alcohol and chocolate syrup over their faces. Dedmon and Opdyke assaulted them with a sex toy. They forced them to strip naked and shower together to conceal the mess.

After Elward shot Jenkins in the mouth, lacerating his tongue and breaking his jaw, they devised a coverup. The deputies agreed to plant drugs, and false charges stood against Jenkins and Parker for months.

McAlpin and Middleton, the oldest men of the group, threatened to kill the other officers if they spoke up, prosecutors said. In court Thursday, McAlpin’s attorney Aafram Sellers said only Middleton threatened to kill the other officers.

Sellers also questioned probation officer Allie Whitten on the stand about details submitted to the judge. When federal investigators interviewed the neighbor who called McAlpin, that person reported seeing “trashy” people at the house who were both white and Black, Sellers said. That called into question whether the episode started on the basis of race, he argued.

Federal prosecutors said the neighbor referred to people at the home as “those people” and “thugs.” The information included in the charging documents, which the officers did not dispute when they pleaded guilty, revealed some of them used racial taunts and epithets throughout the episode.

The majority-white Rankin County is just east of Jackson, home to one of the highest percentages of Black residents of any major U.S. city. The officers shouted at Jenkins and Parker to “stay out of Rankin County and go back to Jackson or “˜their side’ of the Pearl River,” court documents say.

Attorneys for several of the deputies said their clients became ensnared in a culture of corruption that was not only permitted, but encouraged by leaders within the sheriff’s office.

Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey, who took office in 2012, revealed no details about his deputies’ actions when he announced they had been fired last June. After they pleaded guilty in August, Bailey said the officers had gone rogue and promised changes. Jenkins and Parker called for his resignation and filed a $400 million civil lawsuit against the department. Last November, Bailey was reelected without opposition to another four-year term.

___

Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.

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