Divided We Fall: The Killing of James Craig Anderson | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Divided We Fall: The Killing of James Craig Anderson

Photo by Aaron Philips

Jordan Richardson was fishing at Cornerstone Lake in Brandon in 2009 when a pickup truck pulled up. Three teenagers got out of their trucks and started walking toward him, and he knew he was in trouble. Deryl Dedmon, his peer at Brandon High School, had called him names and threatened him with violence for months, and now he and two of his friends had come to pick a fight, Richardson says.

"You little wuss, you won't even defend yourself," Dedmon said, according to Richardson's account.

Richardson had gone fishing with a friend, who was on the other side of the lake. Instead of taking his chances against the three teens, he pulled out his phone and called the police. Richardson knew Dedmon and his friends kept shotguns and deer knives in their trucks, and he didn't know what they might do to him.

Soon the police came to the scene and broke up the altercation. Although Richardson did not file any charges, he said the Brandon Police Department and school-district officials were quick to address the situation and protect him from future encounters.

The next time Richardson saw Dedmon was July 6, 2011, during a Hinds County Circuit Court hearing, in which Judge Ali Shamshid Deen raised Dedmon's bond from $50,000 to $800,000 for his alleged murder of James Craig Anderson, a black man, two weeks before in south Jackson.

"I knew the hate he had in his heart for people who were not like him," Richardson said. "Deryl bullied and terrorized me my freshman year. He would never do it by himself. ... I just felt that it could have been me in that casket instead of (James) Craig Anderson."

'It Could Have Been Me'
Around 5 a.m. on June 26, Dedmon, who graduated from Brandon High School in 2010, and six other teens left a party in Rankin County and headed to Jackson on Interstate 20 in two vehicles: a Ford F-250 and a white SUV, according to court records.

A witness said Dedmon claimed he was on a mission to "mess with people" and led the teens off the Ellis Avenue exit into Jackson. A witness told police that Dedmon pulled into the Wendy's on Ellis Avenue where he saw 49-year-old Anderson beating on the window of an orange Chevy Avalanche. The police report does not state if this was Anderson's car.

Anderson, a witness later claimed, was drunk and looking for his car keys when Dedmon saw him and perhaps thought Anderson was trying to steal the vehicle. Dedmon and Anderson began fighting as several teens ran back and forth to their cars. It's unclear how much the other teens participated in the beating, but a witness claims that one of them yelled "white power" during the attack.

After Anderson's beating, 18-year-old John Aaron Rice and some of the other teens then got back into the white SUV. Dedmon, with two female passengers, followed behind his friends as he took a right on Ellis Avenue. His green F-250 truck suddenly backed up and then lurched forward as Anderson stumbled along the curb on Ellis Avenue and disappeared under the vehicle. Dedmon then pulled into a nearby McDonald's to meet up with the rest of the group stating he had just "ran that n*gger over," according to court records. The district attorney said that Dedmon then laughed about what he had done.

Rice's defensive attorney, Samuel Martin, says that his client had no plans that night to attack a black man. In June at Dedmon's bond hearing, JPD Det. Eric Smith testified that a black man had robbed Dedmon weeks before the attack and that the teen was looking for revenge. Defense attorneys say the teens came to Jackson with the intention of buying alcohol and that Rice was trying to help Anderson who was locked out of his car.

They claim an altercation took place between Dedmon and Anderson at that point.

West Jackson resident Cassandra Welchlin and her husband, Kass Welchlin, helped organize a vigil for Anderson Aug. 12 near the Metro Inn. The mixed-race couple—he's white, and she's black—stood side-by-side with their 3-year-old daughter, Zia Brooke Welchlin, and wore red shirts with the slogan "Not in My City."

Cassandra, who is a member of west Jackson's Capitol Neighborhood Association, started making shirts and organizing the vigil the week after an Aug. 8 CNN report aired, publicly revealing video of Anderson's murder for the first time. She said the slogan caught on quickly, and other community members made their own shirts to wear.

During the vigil, about 500 area residents of various ages and races marched from New Horizon Church along Ellis Avenue to the Metro Inn and laid a wreath where Anderson was killed. Community members sat in back of the truck singing gospel songs such as "This Little Light of Mine." The vigil drew members from several metro congregations including Beth Israel synagogue and Pinelake Baptist Church in Brandon.

"We are here to unify and to share openness and to teach ourselves and our children and everyone out there that there is a better way to live, and love is a better way to live," Beth Israel Rabbi Valerie Cohen said as attendees lit their candles. "We are here to get beyond hatred."

Jordan Richardson, who attended the vigil with his father, said he doesn't defend his hometown, but he also worries that the incident will scar Brandon and propel negative stereotypes. Even good places can produce bad people, says Richardson, who is white.

"There is that aspect of things that people don't talk about, and (the alleged murder) one of those things," Richardson said. "When asked about it, people are trying to make Brandon a good place."

Richardson and several others at the vigil shared the same sentiment: "It could have been me." Welchlin said the fact that Dedmon appeared to randomly attack the first black person he saw means that it could have just as easily been her or someone she knew. That realization seems to be a unifying factor for many concerned residents.  

'Aren't What People Think'
    On Aug. 19 groups of teens and parents packed the Brandon Middle School stadium for the Brandon vs. Pearl football game, one of the biggest events in Brandon each year. Only those who arrived hours ahead of time were able to get a view of the field.   

Last year Richardson tried out to be the school mascot, Bully the Bulldog, and made the cut. He likes to keep his identity quiet so that he doesn't ruin Bully's mystique. The Rankin County School District has nearly doubled in size over the past 10 years, and several parents eagerly passed out stickers and flyers in support of a $169.5 million school bond to build new three new schools and a new athletics facility—that failed on Sept. 13.

Swarms of teenagers gathered in groups and stood behind the bleachers. The teens proudly wore their school colors and talked among themselves—mildly paying attention to the game below. Brandon High School's racial mix is 26 percent black and 71 percent white. White and black students interacted and talked at the game, while older generations sat among people of their own race. White families predominately sat on the left side, and black families primarily sat on the right side.

Before the game began, U.S. Congressman Gregg Harper and Lt. Gov. and gubernatorial hopeful Phil Bryant worked the crowds among a steady stream of supporters. During a ceremony before the game, the crowd applauded wildly as the intercom speaker introduced the two Republican politicians.  

Lagarrin Watson, a black 11th-grader and his girlfriend, Hannah Edwards, a white 10th-grader, held hands as they sat on the bleachers during the game's first quarter. They said they've gotten some negative feedback from a few teachers and peers for being an interracial couple, but for the most part they haven't had any big problems.

The couple insisted that Brandon is a good school with good teachers, but said that sometimes students from different neighborhoods fight with each other.

"There are different types of people—those who are wealthy and have more stuff than others and those who don't have that much, and sometimes they kind of clash," Watson said.

Watson said he knew of Dedmon and was shocked when he saw news reports about Anderson's murder.

"He didn't seem racist to me at all," Watson said of Dedmon. "We have some people who don't like other races, but it's not a really, really big deal."

After the game, the couple was going to Brandon High School's "rave" with techno music and glow sticks in its auditorium.

Other students stood by the refreshment stand. Some had facial piercings and headphones, and others dressed in school colors. Hannah Kaminsky, a blue-eyed senior with braids and a red bandana wrapped around her head, spoke passionately about Brandon.

"We are very down-to-earth people," Kaminsky said. "We aren't what people think we are." Kaminsky said she knew Dedmon personally and believes there is more to the story than the media have presented. She said she believes Dedmon was bi-polar and that she had heard that Dedmon could have bought drugs from Anderson.

"They didn't just randomly meet up. They had gotten into a couple of quarrels (before), and something happened that day that set him off," Kaminsky theorized. "Deryl did drugs because he was going through a rough time, and Anderson had drugs on him."  

Authorities have not released or indicated evidence of drug use or sales by Anderson.

Kaminsky is worried that the incident will perpetuate negative and untrue stereotypes about Brandon.

"It's hard to say I was one of his friends because I don't want people to think I was just like him," she said about Dedmon. "We aren't all white. If you look at Brandon's classes, we have colored people in our class. Brandon is one of the top places to live in the country. There is nothing bad about Brandon. It's a shame it happened. We have never had anything happen like this."

Dedmon should be punished, Kaminsky added, but said the death penalty is too harsh. She does not believe the crime against Anderson was racially motivated.

Brandi Henson, a mixed-race senior wearing an "I'm For Phil" sticker, said her brother was friends with Dedmon. The week before the incident, Dedmon was at her house eating pizza with friends.

"Deryl was always sweet to me," she said. "I never saw any sign of racism."

A handful of teens interviewed at the game sounded on script as they offered similar theories about what happened that night. The teens seemed to agree that Dedmon violated the law, but refused to believe that he attacked Anderson because of race.

The next week at McLaurin High School's home game against Florence, students had little to say about the crime. Rice had graduated from the rural high school last year.

One student agreed to speak on the record about the incident. The student spoke in defense of Rice and said she doesn't believe he or Dedmon participated in a hate crime.  However, she approached this reporter later that night with a friend and said she changed her mind about being interviewed for the story. Later, her fiancé also demanded that her name not appear in this story.  

In the aftermath of the crime, Facebook pages sprouted in support of Dedmon and the other teens, while other pages called for the death penalty. Although the page "Deryl Dedmon Should Go to Prison for LIFE" specifically states that the page "is not meant to spread hate," several people called for retaliation against the teens with comments such as "execute the trash" and "Why waste time? Take his a** out back and run him over."

On the other side of the argument, Lisa Smith Seale Erwin defended her nephew on a page titled "Pray for John Aaron Rice."

"He is not a racist or a murderer," she wrote. "If anything he is being tried by the media suffering from reverse racism. ... I am sick of the race card."

Another supporter defended Rice on July 1: "JPD Sucks. If this was the other way around and a black guy ran over a white boy it would not be a hate crime."

'Two Systems of Justice'?
    As the result of the crime, a group of citizens and organizations have come together and formed "Mississippians Together," a coalition for racial reconciliation. The groups include the Mississippi ACLU, NAACP, New Horizon Church, the Children's Defense Fund and several citizens.

In a Sept. 12 letter to local law enforcement agencies, members of the Anderson family and the coalition wrote that they were "outraged" that no other individuals have been charged with the murder or as accessories to the murder.

"There is a perception in the community that there are two systems of justice, one for people of color and one for whites," the letter stated. "Previous cases have shown that crimes involving black teens, in similar circumstances to Dedmon's mob, have been immediately arrested and charged in connection to the crime."

Jackson State University NAACP President Michael Teasley is a member of the coalition. During a community crime meeting on Aug. 30 at JSU, he expressed his frustration to the district attorney that no other teens had been charged in connection to the crime.

"Our office never likes to rush an investigation," Smith responded.

"I understand your frustration, but it really has not been a long time. ... Given the magnitude of this case, given the number of investigators on the ground, my opinion is that it is coming together very well, and you will be pleased with the results very soon."

Teasley, who is white, grew up in Rankin County and said he was racist until he moved to Selma, Ala., and attended a predominately black high school. He remembers using the n-word when he was younger, but he began to change his mindset when he was exposed to a different race. He spoke to a Brandon Civitan International group on Aug. 17 about the crime, and several members asked him whether the crime was drug-related.

"It's much easier for Rankin County to blame the black man than take responsibility for this crime. Right now the problem is in their churches, homes and schools," Teasley said. "This doesn't have anything to do with a drug deal gone bad. They are looking for an excuse to make themselves feel better."

Teasley said he grew up with progressive-minded parents, but it was his grandparents who had trouble seeing blacks as equals. "They would say things like: 'Bluebirds stay with bluebirds,' and 'blackbirds stay with blackbirds' and then right after that they will say: 'But I'm not racist, though.'"

On Sept. 6, Jackson attorney Winston Thompson III of the Cochran Law Firm in Jackson along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of Anderson's family against Deryl Dedmon, John Aaron Rice, Sarah Graves, Shelbie Richards, William Kirk Montgomery and Dylan Butler, all of whom are 18 or 19. One 17-year-old  minor defendant is included as well.  

The lawsuit states that on June 26 the group of teens took turns beating Anderson in the parking lot of the Metro Inn hotel in Jackson and accuses all the teens of doing nothing to stop the attack, help Anderson or notify police. That same day, national and local media outlets flooded the Hinds County Court Judge Houston Patton's chambers for Dedmon's pretrial hearing.

Officers escorted Dedmon, wearing a blue jumpsuit, into the court's chambers. The curly locks he sported in his mugshot photos were gone, and his small frame seemed unthreatening. Upon request from the attorneys, Patton agreed to reschedule the hearing for Sept. 26. On Sept. 21, however, a grand jury indicted Dedmon on capital murder charges.  

On Sept. 30, during his arraignment hearing, Dedmon pleaded not guilty to the capital-murder charges in Anderson's death.  Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill then set a Jan. 9, 2012, trial date.

Dedmon's attorney, Lee Agnew, refused to speak with the media and instead presented a written statement: "Considering the very serious nature of these allegations and subsequent charges, it is not surprising that this matter has quickly gained a great deal of negative attention; however, let us not forget the fundamental principles which lies at the base of our criminal justice system: due process of law, the right to counsel; the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence for every person and until otherwise proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a presence of a jury of their peers."

A few hours later, the excitement in the air at Brandon Middle School's stadium was palpable as students attended Brandon High School's homecoming game against south Jackson's Forest Hill High School—located less than five miles from the scene of Anderson's murder. A group of tents, modeled after Ole Miss's grove, were grouped together on a grassy area beside the field. A group of predominately white, well-dressed Brandon parents and students tailgated and mingled as the game took place. Parents paid extra for a spot in the VIP area, and all proceeds go to the school's booster club.

Jordan Richardson wore his mascot uniform, which consisted of a large bulldog head, paws and a tuxedo in honor of homecoming. Small children and students giggled and waved at Richardson as he reached over the bleacher fence to give high fives. When he wasn't greeting fans, Richardson cheered on the sidelines, challenging Forest Hill's Patrick the Patriot mascot to a dance off, or joining the school's cheerleading squad.

The game and homecoming festivities went on as normal with no mention of Dedmon or any other teen involvement in the crime. Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, who was at the game, told the Jackson Free Press that the community is "embarrassed" over what has happened. He touted Brandon's close-knit community and quality of living.

"Sometimes it takes one little skunk to stink it up for everyone, and that's what has happened," Moore said.

Around 10 p.m. that evening, students pulled into the parking lot of Brandon High School for the homecoming dance. Some girls wore high heels and sparkly long dresses, while others wore flip flops and less formal attire. They paused to take pictures or reapply their makeup before walking in with their dates.  

A parent volunteer said media was not allowed into the dance and told this reporter to immediately leave campus. Two Brandon police officers followed this reporter to the parking lot. "This is a special night for them, and they don't need anyone coming up and asking them questions," one of the officers said.

'Racist Because It's Cool'
    On Aug. 20 at McAlister's Deli in Brandon—between play practice and a church event—Richardson explained why he believes his peers are offering different versions of what happened the night of June 26.

"I think people's defense of Deryl is a defense of Brandon," he said. "There is that aspect of things that people don't talk about, and this is one of those things. When asked about it, people are trying to make Brandon a good place."

Earlier this year, CNN Money name Brandon one of the best small towns to live in the country, citing high-performing schools, low cost of living and low crime. "Residents of this Jackson suburb often leave their doors unlocked, for crime is rare," the CNN Money named Brandon 89th of 100.

Rankin County is a dry county—no bars or restaurants in Brandon serve liquor or wine, although beer is available. Options for churches, however, are plenty. If you are a newcomer in Brandon, one of the first questions people will ask you is what church you belong to. If someone doesn't go to church, they are likely cutting themselves off from an entire social network, Richardson said.

Richardson said that outside church, teens have few opportunities for social interaction. And it was at a church event where Dedmon threatened to hurt Richardson.

Dedmon was a member of Grace Baptist Church and, in December 2008, area youth groups came together for a discipleship conference. At the event, Dedmon called him gay and tried to get physical, Richardson said. A friend, however, intervened before things got violent.

Even though blacks and whites mingled freely at the football games, Richardson said that Brandon's neighborhoods are largely segregated, and it's common for his peers to use the n-word or make fun of homosexuals.

"You will find people who are racist because it's cool," Richardson said. "They will claim to be racist, but they really aren't. They will use the n-word around their white friends but then hang out with black people."

Richardson remembers the first time he met Dedmon. It was Richardson's freshman year, and he was in the school bathroom. He turned around and saw Dedmon staring at him with a group of friends. "Watch out for that fag," Dedmon said. Richardson doesn't know specifically why Dedmon targeted him, but his father, Brian Richardson, suspects it was because his son was involved in the school's theater. Richardson says that Dedmon never operated alone—he always had several other guys with him.

His father said that school officials and the Brandon Police Department handled the warning signs of Dedmon's violence the best way they could. They notified his parents and acted quickly to diffuse altercations between the two young men.

Jordan Richardson said Dedmon and his friends didn't appear to operate as an organized gang, but that they were just a group of guys who like to "drink beer and smoke dope." He says he has heard of teens taking trips into Jackson to "mess with homeless people," or what they call "rolling."

Brandon is a small town, Richardson said, and it's hard to cause trouble without getting caught. But Jackson is much bigger than Brandon.

Haunting History
Brandon isn't that much different from many other Mississippi towns as far as racial history is concerned. Rankin County experienced a tremendous economic boost resulting in flight from Jackson after the federal government forced an end to segregation. The Citizens Council, a white supremacist organization, had a strong presence in the county.

In the months after James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962, leading to riots and one murder, the Rankin County Press ran an article about the Council's annual banquet in which Lt. Gov. Paul Johnson was the guest speaker. His speech, though, was restricted due to the tear gas he ingested at Ole Miss during the Meredith riots.

Citizens Council Executive Secretary Robert "Tut" Patterson compared the Ole Miss showdown to Pearl Harbor. "We came through with flying colors," Patterson told the Rankin County Press. "... The future of our state is in good hands."

But after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, the racial rhetoric in the paper's editorials quieted down and started advising residents to surrender to an integrated society.   

For many, Anderson's murder is reminiscent of that darker time in Mississippi's history and has raised questions about how much progress the state had made since the tumultuous civil rights era. The murder coincided with the release of the film "The Help" in late summer, based on Jackson native Kathryn Stockett's 1960s-era novel about black maids and their relationship with white families. The timing of the two events sparked conversations and news articles, nationally and locally, about how far Mississippi has really come.
That past includes the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who allegedly whistled at a white women in Money, Miss., prompting two white men to kidnap and kill him and dump his mangled body into the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury acquitted those men, even though they later admitted to the murders in Look Magazine.
It also includes the 1964 murders of two 19-year-old black men, Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee in Roxie, Miss. Klansmen, led by James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards, tied Dee and Moore to a tree, beat them and later tied them to Jeep engine parts and dumped them into the Ole River near Tallulah, La., to drown. The same summer, a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen, including police officers and sheriff's deputies, abducted and murdered James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner on Father's Day in Neshoba County because they were trying to register blacks to vote.
Rankin County has had its own incidents of racial violence.  In 1970, civil-rights activist John Perkins and three other men were arrested in Brandon when they attempted to get a group of Tougaloo students out of Brandon's jail. Authorities had picked them up on a reckless-driving charge in Plain, Miss., while they were trying to return to Jackson from a boycott march.

Rankin County Sheriff Jonathan Edwards, his son Jonathan Edwards Jr. and deputies then beat the three men, leaving Perkins unconscious.

They also stuck a fork, with two metal prongs bent down, through Perkins' nose, and forced him to clean up his own blood. Two-thirds of Perkins' stomach had to be removed because of the beating. He also suffered a mild heart attack shortly after the beating.

Perkins is now the internationally renowned leader of the John M. Perkins Foundation, a Christian ministry based in west Jackson. He and his wife, Vera Mae, also founded Voice of Calvary Ministries in 1962.

Mississippi has also made significant progress, as evidenced by black gubernatorial candidate Johnny DuPree's win in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary. DuPree is the first black to win the Democratic Party's nomination.

Still, Mississippi voters have elected no statewide African American official since Reconstruction.

'The Other Cheek'
    Before his arrest, Deryl Dedmon lived with his mother, stepsister and stepfather at 1011 Orchardview Cove in Brandon located off Highway 471. The one-story brick home looks identical to all the homes in the subdivision with an immaculate yard and a garage door left wide open on Sept. 7, although no one appeared to be home.

His neighbors recalled seeing Dedmon ride his bike around the neighborhood as a small boy, but said the family was very private and mostly kept to themselves.

Former convenience-store manager and current South Jackson Square Promenade Leasing Manager Kenneth Johnson remembered Dedmon and his friends because they used to hang out at the stores he managed at Crossgates and in downtown Brandon. Johnson is gay and said Dedmon and his friends frequently came into the store and used hateful language toward gays and blacks.

He recounted an incident in which a group of Jackson State University fans were in the store getting drinks. Dedmon walked in and said, "Wow, looks like 'n*ggers' are taking over Brandon."

"When I heard that part, it offended me, and I said: 'Hey guys, you have a history of doing this in Brandon and need to stop,'" Johnson recalled.

"Dedmon made it well known that he didn't like gay or black people. Throughout the whole three years I spent at the store and the on-and-off two years I knew them as customers, he talked about Obama and the Jackson City Council and the mayor in a bad way. He talked about Jackson being a predominately black city and said his parents grew up and moved away because of all these black people."

Dedmon's crew frequented the Sonic Drive-In on Highway 80 in Brandon, where a group of white teens can be found most Friday nights smoking cigarettes and displaying their large trucks.

It is so far unclear if Dedmon and the other teens intentionally went to the Metro Inn. The motel, located directly off Interstate 20, offers weekly rates of $149 and nightly rates of $34, an affordable rate for many low-income travelers or residents who can't afford permanent housing.

The hotel has security cameras at its front entrance and TV monitors in its back office.

Early the morning of June 26, one of the hotel security guards woke up Metro Inn owner Val Patel from his room at the Metro Inn. Patel, a former IBM executive with a doctorate in engineering from New York University, ran to the curb outside the hotel and found Anderson lying on the ground. About that time police and ambulance came to the scene. Patel said he turned over the surveillance video to law enforcement and CNN, but disputes rumors that he sold the video to CNN.  

"If there wasn't a video, no one would have known who had run over him, and nobody would have ever known it was a racially motivated hate crime," he told the Jackson Free Press. "I formally believe in the right cause, and there is not one penny that was involved—other than the money that has killed me from a business point of view."

Patel became visibly upset when he spoke about the media's coverage of the crime. He maintains that the crime did not happen on his property but started in the adjacent Wendy's parking lot. He said Dedmon hit Anderson as he was walking along Ellis Avenue. He feels that the media has unfairly characterized the Metro Inn.

"The crime happened on the street. It had nothing to do with property, except we are why anyone even knows about it," Patel said.  

In July, Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes publicly called for the closing of the Metro Inn, calling it a "public nuisance" citing drug use and prostitution at the hotel.

Patel said the Metro Inn provides a service to low-income families who have trouble finding affordable housing in the area.

The Atlanta, Ga., resident said he works seven days a week from 7 a.m. to midnight and stays at the hotel between trips back home to Atlanta.  He said the hotel has a security guard on duty at all times.

"Many families have lived here a year," Patel said as he walked over to the hotel's indoor pool, pointing to several children playing nearby. "A school bus comes here every day and picks up 10 to 15 kids."

But the hotel is in a blighted area, resulting from suburban flight that followed integration. Police regularly respond to a high volume of calls in the area. Despite the hotel's reputation, it's unclear why Anderson was at the hotel at 5 a.m. on June 26.

Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees said the case was still under investigation and could not provide specifics.

Anderson, 49, had worked at Nissan for seven years. He was gay and had a partner of 17 years, James Bradfield, and helped his partner raise the 4-year-old of whom Bradfield had legal custody. Anderson was a member of his choir at First Hyde Park Baptist Church. His partner told The New York Times that Anderson may have been at a party near the hotel the morning of his death. District Attorney Robert Smith has told media that Anderson had been robbed that night and his cell phone and wallet were taken.

"If you met him, the first thing you were going to see was that grand-piano smile," Anderson's oldest sister Barbara Anderson Young told The New York Times Aug. 22. His family could not be reached for this story.

The Times also reported that Dedmon had sent his sister a letter from his jail cell stating that he had committed himself to Jesus after the crime and blaming others for his situation. "I want you to take the Bible for real," he wrote his sister.

"I don't want you to end up like this. I thought drinking was fun, but look where it got me. And seriously choose your friends wisely, Tiff. My so-called friends got me here."

The Anderson family has made few public appearances since the crime, and on Sept. 13 asked Smith not to seek the death penalty for Dedmon.

"Those responsible for James' death not only ended the life of a talented and wonderful man," Barbara Anderson Young wrote to Smith about her brother. "They also have caused our family unspeakable pain and grief. As Coretta Scott King stated in explaining her opposition to the death penalty: 'An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of human life.'

"Our opposition to the death penalty is deeply rooted in our religious faith, a faith that was central in James' life as well. Our Savior Jesus Christ rejected the old way of an eye for an eye and taught us instead to turn the other cheek."

Smith said he would consider the family's request as he proceeds with the prosecution.

Hate Crime, Defined
    Morris Dees says he is not singling out Mississippi in his organization's efforts to seek justice for Anderson's death.
During a Sept. 12 press conference at the Hinds County Courthouse, the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center said his organization has filed similar lawsuits in Long Island, N.Y., and Linden, Texas. In 2008, a group of teenagers in Long Island, N.Y., beat Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero, and one of the teens, Jeffrey Conroy, stabbed him to death. A judge sentenced Conroy to 25 years in prison for manslaughter as a hate crime, but acquitted him of the hate-crime charge for murder.
In Texas, the organization helped Billy Ray Johnson, a disabled black man, receive $9 million in damages after four white men beat him in 2003.
"I think in Mississippi, this isn't something that happens every day," Dees said. "Obviously, there is systemic racism built into this state. We want to make sure that you know we aren't picking on Mississippi. ... But we want to make sure the whole story gets out."

In 1994, Mississippi passed its first hate-crime law. The statute says that if the prosecution can prove that the crime was committed "because of the actual or perceived race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, national origin or gender of the victim," then it can be considered a hate crime.  

Only one known crime, however, has been tried under Mississippi's hate-crime statute.  In 2005, Brandon resident Jonathan Jones walked into Pops Around the Corner in Jackson and told the bartender that some "n*gger" had thrown a beer bottle through his window and that he was "going to kill" the n*gger." He then asked the bartender if he could use the phone to call his insurance company so he could replace the window.

Jones, however, had already killed 18-year-old Reginald Daniels after the teenager threw a rock at his car.

Hinds County Judge Swan Yerger handed Jones a two-year prison sentence for killing Daniels, saying that the victim and his friends were planning to carjack Jones. Yerger charged him with manslaughter, a lesser charge than murder, and gave Jones eight years in prison with two of those years suspended.

"Those three young men were looking for trouble," Yerger argued at the trial. "Jones was not looking for trouble, he was on his way home."

Former Hinds County Assistant District Attorney Stanley Alexander said at the time he was dismayed by Yerger's sentence. For this story, he said it had been so long and could not give specifics.

Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen told the Jackson Free Press that hate-crime laws are meant to increase penalties for certain kinds of crimes. "Mississippi's hate-crime law is not unusual. It's a penalty enhancement law. It means that the penalty for the violation for the law is increased if the illegal act was committed because of the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin or gender of the victim," he said.  

The Federal Bureau of Investigations collects hate-crime data, but local law enforcement submit the information on a voluntary basis, and many of them do not participate in any hate-crime reporting. In 2009, the last year that the FBI published hate-crime data, only 61 counties and municipalities in the state participated.  In 2009, only two hate crimes were reported for the entire state of Mississippi.

"In every state in the nation including Mississippi, the data is at best impressionistic and at worse misleading," he said. "FBI data would tell you that between 7,000 to 10,000 hate crimes are committed nationally each year. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that there are actually 200,000 hate crimes committed every year."

In 1998, Jasper, Texas, became known for one of the most heinous modern-day racial crimes in the country when white supremacist gang member Lawrence Russell Brewer and two other men chained James Byrd Jr., who was black, to their truck and dragged him 10 miles down an isolated road. Police discovered Byrd's head and limbs detached from his body along a trail of blood down the road. On Sept. 22, 2011, the state of Texas executed Brewer.

John William King is on death row and a third man, Shawn Berry, received life.

NPR correspondent and journalist Dina Temple-Raston explored the impact of the crime on Jasper's community in "A Death in Texas: A Story of Race, Murder and a Small Town's Struggle for Redemption" (Holt Paperbacks, 2003, $14). As national media descended on the town, the community used similar talking points defending race relations in their town. The town also tried to reconcile through symbolic acts such as wrapping yellow ribbons around trees and tearing down a fence in the community's segregated cemetery.

But, overall, Temple-Raston said that little changed in the town in the long run.  

"Among themselves, white Jasperites said the problem of race relations in Jasper in 2001 was mostly the minds of the black community," she wrote. "Blacks said that whites shrugged off their concerns because they could forget race; blacks could not."

Her book ends, however, with the reflection of Jasper Sheriff Billy Rowles.

Rowles recounted the story of how he saw a black mother and child in town and waved to them as a friendly gesture. But suddenly, he felt that was not enough of a kind gesture after everything the town had been through. He then approached the mother and child and sat down to chat with them.

"What he realized was that just saying you aren't racist isn't enough, particularly if you are white," Temple-Raston told the Jackson Free Press Sept. 30. "... You might say you are not racist, but you have to do something more overt. He was one of the few people in Jasper who couldn't just say: 'I am not racist. I don't agree with Bill King. I don't think what was done to James Byrd was right.' That's not enough. You have to go further."  

Opponents to hate-crime legislation say hate drives all crimes and that it's unfair to distinguish one crime from another. Still others argue that hate crimes could limit free speech.

Southern Poverty Law Center Research Director Heidi Beirich said hate crimes carry more weight because of the impact they have on communities. "Hate crimes aren't the same as other crimes," she said. "In a hate crime, you attack somebody based on your perception that this person is a member of group. It's not a personal attack. It's one in which you target all Jews or blacks. ... When there is a hate crime, whatever group the victim was from, every member of that group lives in fear. You make that entire community and fearful. It's a crime that rips communities apart."
When two different racial groups disagree on whether the crime was racially motivated, it can lead to even more divisions in the communities, Beirich said.

"That's the real tragedy of hate crimes: When the victim's class are the only ones concerned about violence and the larger population doesn't give it any credence, it's devastating and divisive," she said. "I think people in general are very quick to diminish hate crime especially in places where there have been racial tensions or other issues."

Because the data on hate crimes are unreliable, Beirich said it is difficult to determine the ongoing racial struggles in America and the South.

Beirich added that only about 10 percent of hate crimes are tied to racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. "You have a higher number of people influenced by racist, semantic or anti-gay ideology but (who) aren't actually members of groups," she said.

A Time to Change
Kerry Paajanen commutes from Rankin County to Jackson five days a week and takes the Ellis Avenue exit from Interstate 20 on her way to classes at Jackson State University. Whenever she passes by the now wind-battered wreath memorial on the overgrown patch of grass in front of the Metro Inn, she thinks about Anderson's death. The Florence resident and mother of three can't see how the alleged murder could be an accident.

Paajanen, a petite 40-year-old blonde, attended a predominately black high school in Vicksburg and said she always had a strong sense of right and wrong. When she noticed that her high school boyfriend was missing the stone from his class ring because he had use it to strike his classmates, she broke up with him. The movie "Mississippi Burning," a fictional account of the 1964 Klan murders in Philadelphia, Miss., makes her cry, and she feels more comfortable at a largely black college campus than most other places.

Her 15-year-old daughter Paige Ramage is a sophomore at Brandon High School. Paajanen said her daughter believes that what Dedmon did was wrong but has a difficult time understanding why the other teens should be held accountable for the crime. Since the crime, Paajanen said she has stressed the importance to her daughter of standing up for what's right. Paajanen has also been bringing her daughter and 5-year-old son to JSU's campus to expose them to different races and areas outside their community. Paajanen said that in a small community like Brandon, it can be difficult for people to speak out against something their friends were involved in.

"I don't think it's so much the white-black thing," she said last week. "They don't want to speak out against their friends. My daughter doesn't think it's right, but she knows those kids, so she feels empathetic and is not fully comprehending that what those kids did—whether they were in the car or not—that's still bad. They went along with it and didn't say stop."

Paajanen believes all teens involved should be charged in the murder as accessories.

People in Rankin County might not be speaking out publicly, but a majority of her neighbors believe that the teens did something wrong, she said. She sees Rankin County as a place where law enforcement frequently stop outsiders and where white teens may get away with more than black teens, but it's also a community where people take care of each other.

Paajanen recalls earlier this spring when the infamous Westboro (Kan.) Baptist Church (of "God Hates Fags" notoriety) attempted to protest the funeral of fallen Marine Staff Sgt. Jason Rogers.

The entire town shut down, and the community and law enforcement effectively blockaded the protesters. Instead of angry protesters, the shoulder of U.S. Highway 80 was filled with residents waving American flags and saluting the fallen soldier. Paajanen wishes the community of Brandon would come together in the same way against Anderson's murder.  

"Why isn't Brandon standing up? I don't understand why people don't think that we aren't connected," Paajanen said. "The income and the economy are all related, and unless we realize that if we don't help Jackson out, it's going to continue to fall."  

On July 2, Jordan Richardson and his father were among the few whites who crowded into the small First Hyde Park Baptist Church off Medgar Evers Boulevard to attend Anderson's funeral.

During his sermon, the pastor made no mention of the hate. Instead of anger, the family focused on celebrating Anderson's life.  

Sitting by his father before the ceremony began, Jordan thought about the years he endured Dedmon's bullying and realized that he could have just as easily been a victim. Overcome with emotions, Jordan broke down and began to cry in heavy sobs.

Despite her own grief, Barbara Anderson Young came over and embraced Jordan in her arms as she comforted him.

Young Anderson then spoke at the service about her brother, remembering his love for cooking, sense of fashion, and humor. She called his death "untimely" but did not speak out against about the murder suspects. She acknowledged Jordan at the end of her speech.

"Jordan, we love you. Thank you, and be strong," she said.

The experience has matured Jordan Richardson and given him a greater sense of justice, he said. He has fully embraced his last year of high school.

When he isn't being the mascot, he hangs out with his girlfriend, studies and is currently directing a school play. He is applying to several colleges where he hopes to major in journalism and continue to be a mascot.

Rarely does a day go by when he doesn't think about James Craig Anderson. "From observing the grace of the Anderson Young family and watching them endure this and extending grace, I believe that it has had a profound affect on (Jordan)," Brian Richardson said. "He has become more forgiving."

Jordan Richardson said that although what happened is horrible, he hopes the alleged murder can serve as a catalyst for the two communities to overcome racial barriers and build common ground.  

"I would really like this to serve as a complete eradicating and erasing of all stereotypes—of Brandon, Rankin County and Jackson," he said. "The stereotype that anywhere you go in Jackson, you better be looking over your shoulder and in Brandon anywhere you go you are going to find Rednecks.

"The only way that can happen is through a response of love for one community to the other."

Support our reporting -- Follow the MFP.