JACKSON, Miss. -- Authorities call it a hate crime by two white teens against a middle-aged black man, "murder by physically assaulting and purposefully using a 1998 Ford F-250 to run over James Craig Anderson."
Defense lawyers insist the incident had nothing to do with race. One of the teen's attorneys said the group was on a beer run that morning, not out looking for a black man to assault, as prosecutors claim.
Regardless of whether race had anything to do with the killing, that's how it's being seen by many who live far away from Mississippi's capital. Stoked in part by security camera footage showing Anderson being run over, people across the country have begun to sound off on social media pages created for and against the defendants, filling them with shrill, often hateful comments.
Pages have been set up to solicit prayers for the victim and one of the suspects, but the posts have become more heated since the surveillance video was made public. Another Web page calls for the executions of Deryl Dedmon and John Aaron Rice, who were 18 when the 49-year-old Anderson was run down on a Jackson street just before dawn on June 26.
Both were both initially charged with murder, though the charge against Rice was reduced to simple assault after a detective testified Rice left the scene in a separate vehicle before Anderson was run down.
The ACLU of Mississippi said it is monitoring the investigation.
"The murder of James Craig Anderson was a cowardly act of violence that reminds us of the racial hatred that continues to plague the South," said Nsombi Lambright, the ACLU's executive director for Mississippi.
Despite the angry, racially tinged rhetoric posted by blacks and whites alike, the situation could provoke level-headed discussions about race relations, said Gerald Rose, founder of the Atlanta-based New Order National Human Rights Organization. His group and others are planning a trip this month to the scene of Anderson's death.
Rose said people from California to Virginia have contacted him about Anderson's death.
"When I saw the video, I shed tears. That could have been me or it could have been my sons," said Rose, who is black. "We want to call for a healing process, and at the same time we are aware racism is still alive. I can't believe stuff like this is going on in the year 2011."
The intense focus on the case comes as Mississippi has been coming to terms with its history of racial violence, including the beating, jailing and killing of civil rights activists in the 1960s. State leaders recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and Gov. Haley Barbour signed legislation providing initial funding for a national civil rights museum.
The surveillance video, obtained by The Associated Press and other media, shows a white Jeep in which Rice was allegedly a passenger leaving a hotel parking lot at 5:05 a.m.
Less than 20 seconds later, a Ford truck backs up and then lunges forward. Anderson's shirt is illuminated in the headlights before he disappears under the vehicle next to the curb. The Metro Inn provided Jackson police with the video, which prosecutors say has been vital in the investigation.
The video also shows hotel staff and guests hurrying to the street to help Anderson. Some of them paced back and forth in apparent disbelief while calling police on their cell phones. None of the people allegedly involved in the incident was a hotel guest.
Dedmon is charged as the driver of the green Ford F-250. He's being held in the Hinds County jail on an $800,000 bond. Rice posted a $5,000 bond and was released, though Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith said a grand jury expected to meet in the coming weeks could still indict Rice on a murder charge.
If convicted of a hate crime, the teens' sentences could be increased. Attorneys for both dispute that their clients were involved in a racially motivated attack.
Dedmon's attorney, Lee Agnew, said during a court hearing in July that he had seen nothing to back up the "racial allegations." Agnew did not respond to messages left this week by the AP.
Rice's lawyer, Samuel Martin, declined to comment this week. During a bond hearing last month, Martin suggested during a line of questioning with a police detective that Rice had no knowledge of any plan to indiscriminately attack a black man.
Jackson Police Detective Eric Smith testified that Dedmon had been robbed by a black man in the weeks before Anderson's death and was looking for "some sort of revenge" when the group left a party in Rankin County, allegedly in search of a random black person "to mess with." Seven people headed to Jackson in two cars, with Dedmon and Rice in separate vehicles.
The district attorney has said racial slurs were used during the attack and that Dedmon later bragged that he "just ran that n----- over."
But during the hearing in July, Martin suggested the teens went to Jackson to buy beer because it isn't sold that late in Rankin County – not to look for a black man. Martin pointed out that Rice wasn't in the truck and that he wasn't at the scene when Anderson was hit. The line of questioning also revealed that no witness at that time had said Rice was the one using racial slurs.
The detective testified that Rice was a passenger in a white Jeep that arrived first at the hotel, which is just off Interstate 20 and next to a Wendy's. Smith said Rice saw Anderson near a car and thought he was trying to break into it. Instead, police said, Anderson had locked his keys inside his own vehicle.
Rice told authorities he tried to help Anderson get into the vehicle, but the detective said an altercation took place when Dedmon arrived.
"All of the evidence shows that, in fact, (Rice) was trying to help Mr. Anderson prior to Deryl Dedmon getting there," Martin said during the hearing.
"Yes, sir," the detective replied.
The detective said four people got out of the vehicles before the fight with Anderson, though he said only Rice and Dedmon assaulted him. The officer said Rice punched Anderson, knocking him down, before Dedmon attacked the dazed man.
Rice's lawyer disputes that his client was the instigator.
Dedmon was pulled over on Interstate 20 in Rankin County later that morning. Rice was arrested a few days later. Authorities have not ruled out that others at the scene could be charged.