April 17th, 2024

3rd of 6 former officers in Mississippi gets 17.5 years for racist torture of 2 Black men

By Michael Goldberg And Emily Wagster Pettus, The Associated Press on March 20, 2024.

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – A third former Mississippi sheriff’s deputy has been sentenced for his part in the racist torture of two Black men by a group of white officers who called themselves “the Goon Squad.” Daniel Opdyke was sentenced Wednesday to 17.5 years in federal prison.

Opdyke, 28, cried profusely as he spoke in court before the judge announced his sentence. Turning to look at the two victims, he said his isolation behind bars has given him time to reflect on “how I transformed into the monster I became that night.”

“The weight of my actions and the harm I’ve caused will haunt me every day,” Opdyke told them. “I wish I could take away your suffering.”

One of the victims, Eddie Terrell Parker, rested his head in his hands and closed his eyes, then stood up and left the courtroom before Opdyke finished speaking.

U.S. District Judge Tom Lee said Opdyke may not have been fully aware of what being a member of the Goon Squad entailed when Middleton asked him to join, but he did know it involved using excessive force. “You were not a passive observer, you actively participated in that brutal attack,” Lee said.”

All six of the former officers pleaded guilty last year to breaking into a home without a warrant and torturing the Black men with a stun gun, a sex toy and other objects. Christian Dedmon, 29, also faced a lengthy prison term at his sentencing, set for Wednesday afternoon before Lee.

On Tuesday, Lee gave a nearly 20-year prison sentence to Hunter Elward, 31, and a 17.5-year sentence to Jeffrey Middleton, 46, calling their actions “egregious and despicable.” They, like Opdyke and Dedmon, worked as Rankin County sheriff’s deputies during the attack.

Another former deputy, Brett McAlpin, 53, and a former Richland police officer, Joshua Hartfield, 32, are set for sentencing Thursday.

Last March, 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 former officers stuck to their cover story for months until finally admitting that they tortured Michael Corey Jenkins and Parker. Elward admitted to shoving a gun into Jenkins’ mouth and firing it in a “mock execution” that went awry.

In a statement Tuesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland condemned the “heinous attack on citizens they had sworn an oath to protect.”

The terror began Jan. 24, 2023, with a racist call for extrajudicial violence when a white person in Rankin County 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,” he texted – a green light, according to prosecutors, to use excessive force on parts of the body that wouldn’t appear in a booking photo.

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

After Elward shot Jenkins in the mouth, lacerating his tongue and breaking his jaw, they devised a coverup that included planting drugs and a gun. False charges stood against Jenkins and Parker for months.

The majority-white Rankin County is just east of the state capital, 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.

Opdyke was the first to admit what they did, his attorney Jeff Reynolds said Wednesday. On April 12, he showed investigators a WhatsApp text thread where the officers discussed their plan and what happened. Had he thrown his phone in a river, as some of the other officers did, investigators might not have discovered the encrypted messages.

Dedmon and Opdyke, like Elward, also are being sentenced after pleading guilty to their roles in an assault on a white man on Dec. 4, 2022 – weeks before Jenkins and Parker were tortured. Prosecutors revealed the victim’s identity Tuesday as Alan Schmidt. Reynolds said Opdyke held Schmidt down until Dedmon arrived, but didn’t beat him or sexually assault him.

According to a statement from Schmidt that prosecutors read in court, Dedmon accused him of possessing stolen property during a traffic stop that night. Schmidt said he was handcuffed, pulled from his vehicle and beaten until he “started to see spots.”

Prosecutors said Elward and Opdyke failed to intervene as Dedmon punched and kicked him, used a Taser on him, and fired his gun into the air to threaten him, and then sexually assaulted him.

Schmidt said Dedmon forced him to his knees, pulled out his “private part” and hit him in the face with it, trying to insert it into his mouth. Dedmon then grabbed Schmidt’s genitals and rubbed against his body as he screamed for them to stop, Schmidt said.

“What sick individual does this? He has so much power over us already, so to act this way, he must be truly sick in this head,” Schmidt wrote in his statement.

Elward and Middlelton were emotional as they apologized in court on Tuesday. Elward’s attorney, Joe Hollomon, said his client first witnessed Rankin County deputies turn a blind eye to misconduct in 2017.

“Hunter (Elward) was initiated into a culture of corruption at the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office,” Hollomon said.

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 to change the department. Jenkins and Parker have called for his resignation, and they have filed a $400 million civil lawsuit against the department.

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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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