April 13th, 2024

Mississippi ex-deputy gets 40-year sentence as judge decries brutal attack on 2 Black men

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

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – A fourth former Mississippi sheriff’s deputy was sentenced Wednesday for his part in the racist torture of two Black men by a group of white officers who called themselves the “Goon Squad,” receiving 40 years in federal prison.

Christian Dedmon, 29, did not look at the victims as he apologized and said he’d never forgive himself for the pain he caused.

All six former officers charged in the case pleaded guilty last year, admitting that they subjected Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker to numerous acts of racist torture in January 2023 after a neighbor complained the men were staying in a home with a white woman. Prosecutors said Dedmon slapped the men with a sex toy and threatened to brutalize them with it.

U.S. District Judge Tom Lee said Wednesday that Dedmon carried out the most “shocking, brutal and cruel attacks imaginable” against Jenkins and Parker and against a white man during a traffic stop weeks earlier.

Jenkins, who still has trouble speaking due to his injuries, said in a statement read by his lawyer that Dedmon’s actions were the most depraved of any of those who attacked him.

“Deputy Dedmon is the worst example of a police officer in the United States,” Jenkins said. “Deputy Dedmon was the most aggressive, sickest and the most wicked.”

Hours before Dedmon’s sentencing, former officer Daniel Opdyke, 28, cried profusely as he spoke before the judge announced his sentence of 17.5 years. Turning to look at the two victims, Opdyke said 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.”

Parker rested his head in his hands and closed his eyes, then stood and left the courtroom before Opdyke finished speaking. Jenkins said he was “broken” and “ashamed” by the cruel acts inflicted upon him.

The judge said Opdyke may not have been fully aware of what being a member of the Goon Squad entailed when Lt. Jeffrey Middleton asked him to join, but he did know it involved using excessive force.

“You were not a passive observer,” Lee said. “You actively participated in that brutal attack.”

All six 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.

On Tuesday, Lee gave a nearly 20-year prison sentence to Hunter Elward, 31, and a 17.5-year sentence to 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.

Reynolds also said Opdyke was sexually assaulted as a child and had seen the older deputies as father figures. That made him susceptible to the culture of misconduct within the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office, Reynolds said.

“When a new officer goes over there, they start indoctrinating people,” Reynolds said. “Where is the true leadership? Why aren’t they in this court?”

Dedmon, who planted drugs on Jenkins to frame him on false charges, said he was promoted to narcotics investigator not despite his bad behavior, but because of it.

“It’s because instead of doing the right thing, I chose to do the wrong thing,” Dedmon said.

Dedmon, like Opdyke and Elward, also pleaded guilty to taking part in an assault on a white man during a traffic stop 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.

The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they were sexually assaulted unless they consent to being identified or come forward publicly.

According to a statement from Schmidt that prosecutors read in court, Dedmon accused him of possessing stolen property. 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, fired his gun into the air to threaten him, and then sexually assaulted him.

“What sick individual does this?” Schmidt wrote in his statement.

Dedmon admitted to firing a gun into the air to intimidate Schmidt but denied sexually assaulting him. Prosecutors said they read details from the sexual assault into the court record when Dedmon pleaded guilty, and Dedmon said he agreed with the facts presented.

Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey, who took office in 2012 and was reelected in November after no one ran against him, 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.

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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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