Matthew Whitten Darby, a white teen, is scheduled to go on trial in February for the hit and run murder in July, 2012 of 61-year-old John Butts, a Sunday school teacher, cancer survivor, and an AfricanAmerican. As it now stands, Whitten will not be hit with a hate crime charge in the murder. Panola County, Mississippi prosecuting attorney John Champion is adamant that Darby had absolutely no racial motive in running down Butts. But Champion is either a mentalist or has information that no one else has about why Darby killed Butts. How else to explain why he has ignored these facts. The two white teens with Darby said that he could clearly see that Butts was black, turned the steering wheel toward him, and deliberately plowed into him. He got out examined the body and then drove away. The mother of one of the white teens flatly said that Butts was killed because he was black. Investigators did not probe why three white teens from another Mississippi county were tooling around a rural and predominantly African-American area of the county.
The cavalier rejection by the prosecutor, the county sheriff, and county officials that race was the reason Butts was brutally killed stands in stark contrast to the way officials in Hinds County, Miss., treated the savage beating and car murder a year earlier of James Craig Anderson. In that case, the perpetrators were six white teens that beat and ran over Anderson, an African American, were slapped with federal hate crimes charges. The driver was nailed with state hate crime charges and murder. He pled guilty to both.
In both cases, the weapon of choice to kill the two black men was a vehicle, and the killers were white teens. The shocking Anderson murder was caught on videotape, and repeatedly shown on cable networks. It ignited a storm of rage, and triggered marches, demonstrations, and prayer vigils in which protestors demanded that the teens be charged with a racial hate crime. The prosecuting attorney in the Anderson murder was an African American. Champion is white.
As always in alleged racially-charged killings, the standard what-if is what if Butts had been white? And he had been viciously run down on the highway by a group of black teens who admitted afterward that they deliberately ran over him? Would the two passengers not have been charged as accessories and would the driver not have been charged with a race-motivated murder?
This has to be asked because Butts and Anderson were viciously killed in Mississippi. The state has a long and shameful history of premeditated racial violence against African Americans. During most of the state's sordid past, sheriffs, district attorneys, and state officials not only turned a blind eye to the violence against blacks but more often than not egged it on, and in some cases even were directly complicit in committing murderous acts against blacks. Then there's the overt and subtle climate of polarization and hate that's ever present there. Confederate flags fly on white homes in eyesight of the spot where Butts was run down.
Both Champion and the county sheriff seemed taken aback by any inference that the alleged murder of Butts had anything to do with race. They hotly told inquirers that they searched hard to determine the motive in the killing and could find none, and that included a racial motive.
Mississippi is also very much a death penalty state. And it has had absolutely no reservation in years past of slapping the death penalty on blacks that commit or are simply accused of committing a crime or violence against whites. Countless studies have shown that when blacks commit crimes against whites, they are far more likely to be convicted, serve longer sentences, and if the charge is murder, more likely than whites to get the death penalty.
It's almost certain that Darby's defense will twist and turn the evidence to present him as an immature, inebriated, irresponsible teen that in a moment of juvenile passion simply let his emotions run away with him. In other words, Butt's death was tragic, but this is hardly grounds to throw the legal book at him. Given the well-established propensity of all or mostly white juries to give white defendants that commit acts of violence against blacks the full benefit of the legal doubt, there's no guarantee that Darby won't skip away without being convicted of murder. There's also the possibility that he'll cut a deal and plead to lesser charges.
Butt's family has been outspoken that he was murdered because he was black. They have demanded that the prosecutor push harder to establish that fact and charge the teens with a hate crime. So far their plea has fallen on deaf ears. And given Mississippi's history of monumental indifference and insensitivity to racially motivated murders failings, if the prosecution has its way, it may stay that way.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com