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Southern states chip away at civil rights infamy

Brian Bowling
| Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, 10:50 p.m.
Former Mississippi state trooper Christopher G. Hughes, 44, of Tupelo, Miss. He pleaded guilty in 2013 and served a 33-month federal sentence for violating the civil rights of a female inmate he assaulted at the Lee County, Miss., jail.
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
Former Mississippi state trooper Christopher G. Hughes, 44, of Tupelo, Miss. He pleaded guilty in 2013 and served a 33-month federal sentence for violating the civil rights of a female inmate he assaulted at the Lee County, Miss., jail.

Civil rights in the South — and Mississippi, in particular — were for decades virtually nonexistent for blacks.

Movies such as “Mississippi Burning” highlighted the brutal and deadly injustices in the state, including the slayings of three civil rights workers in 1964.

Yet, a Tribune-Review investigation shows that, from 2005 to 2015, Mississippi's two U.S. Attorney's offices led the United States in the number of prosecutions of law enforcement officers for civil rights violations.

The numbers of such cases prosecuted in Mississippi, or nationally, are not large, however.

Mississippi's Northern federal court district in Aberdeen prosecuted 19 cases between 2005 and 2015 out of 141 complaints they received. Their counterparts in the Jackson-based Southern District prosecuted 17 out of 180, the Trib analysis found.

Nationally, federal prosecutors pursued 373 out of 4,777 possible cases of civil rights violations by police officers.

Click here to see more about federal prosecution of civil rights violations by law enforcement.

“It's not surprising to me that there's a larger incidence of complaints and prosecutions” in Mississippi, said Brad Pigott, the U.S. Attorney for the state's Southern District from 1994 to 2001. “There is a more tempestuous history in this state.”

The state's history also means that while the Justice Department stayed out of most prosecution decisions in Pigott's district, Washington “insisted on making the final decision on civil rights prosecutions,” he said.

Though he didn't know if that's still the case, Pigott said that “once Washington decides for a policy reason to take control of something, it rarely lets it go.”

Felicia C. Adams, the U.S. Attor­ney for Mississippi's Northern District, and Gregory K. Davis, the U.S. Attorney for the state's Southern District, wouldn't agree to interviews with the Trib.

In Pennsylvania, the Pitsburgh-based Western District prosecuted six cases out of 41 possible. In the Eastern District in Philadelphia, two cases were prosecuted out of 25. The Middle District had no prosecutions in 11 years out of 13 possible cases.

Peter Smith, the U.S. Attor­ney for Pennsylvania's Middle District in Harrisburg, said that because his office is smaller than those in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, many civil rights prosecutions there are handled by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington with his staff's help. Such was the case, for example, with the 2011 conviction of the chief and a lieutenant of the Shenandoah Police Department for obstructing a federal investigation into the beating death of an undocumented immigrant. A third officer in that case was acquitted.

The cases that do reach his office often have been passed up by the Justice Department, Smith said. “Oftentimes, we are the last office to look at an allegation of a civil rights-law enforcement violation.”

Private attorneys in Mississippi, who represent people who have been victims of police abuse, confirmed that federal prosecutions are rare.

The FBI, in particular, seems to be interested in pursuing police misconduct cases in Mississippi, but few end up being prosecuted, said Jim Waide, a Tupelo attorney.

“It pretty much has to be an open-and-shut case before they'll prosecute,” Waide said. “It can't be questionable.”

A case in point was the prosecution of former Mississippi state Trooper Christopher Hughes, who has been accused in criminal and civil cases of assaulting at least seven people between 2007 and 2012 before he was indicted and convicted of the first assault. That Oct. 14, 2007, assault involved him throwing a woman onto the concrete floor of the Lee County Adult Detention Facility, pounding her face against the floor, stomping her head and kicking her, the criminal complaint and court documents show.

In February 2013, Hughes pleaded guilty to violating the woman's civil rights and was sentenced to 33 months in prison and two years of probation. As part of the plea agreement, the government agreed not to charge him for two of the other six alleged assaults.

It's not clear why the federal government hasn't charged him in the remaining four cases, because the prosecutor would not talk to the Trib.

However, a male victim in one of those alleged assaults in December 2007 sued the state. The Mississippi Legislature in 2012 voted to pay $23,000 to settle the matter.

Waide represented five of the alleged victims in another civil action that ended with the state paying a total of $235,000 to settle their claims that one of Hughes' supervisors knew of the assaults and failed to act.

Hughes denied assaulting the five people in court documents, but pleaded the fifth in pretrial depositions. Because Hughes “brought forth no sworn witness statement or even a scintilla of evidence in opposition,” the judge in the case ruled that the plaintiffs' accounts of what happened would be considered “undisputed.” The judge granted summary judgment supporting their claims that Hughes used excessive force against them.

The Trib reviewed the court records in that case and talked with two of the victims.

Ronnie Horton was a 22-year truck driver and chairman of several church boards of deacons when he was driving his car in Lee County, Miss., on Aug. 4, 2011. He passed out from low blood pressure and ended up in a single-car accident, according to a civil lawsuit against Hughes and the state.

Horton was unconscious when Hughes showed up at the scene and hit him in the mouth, the lawsuit stated. Horton regained consciousness and asked Hughes why he hit him. The lawsuit said that Hughes responded, “Did you want some more?”

Hughes arrested and jailed Horton, who was subsequently released without any charges being filed against him.

“It was humiliating,” Horton said.

Horton said the incident left him with a chronic neck injury.

Hughes got off easy with one conviction, Horton said, but he has tried to put the incident behind him.

“If a man can bounce back, I guess I'll bounce back,” he said.

Hughes arrested and handcuffed Bryan Lindsey of Tupelo, Miss., on Oct. 17, 2010, at a highway safety checkpoint. Lindsey didn't have car insurance, according to the same lawsuit.

Lindsey told the Trib he believes a key factor was that he's black and his wife, who was in the car, is white.

According to the lawsuit, Lindsey asked Hughes, who is white, a couple of times why he was being arrested. Hughes finally replied that if Lindsey said anything else, “ ‘I'm going to do something to you.' ”

When Lindsey repeated his question, Hughes rammed his head into the rear quarter panel of a police car and then threw him across the highway, the lawsuit said. Lindsey told the Trib he landed face first in the gravel on the shoulder of the roadway and briefly lost consciousness.

When he came to, “blood was just pouring from my forehead,” Lindsey said.

Mississippi's Northern District may have a higher prosecution rate than the Southern District just because more of its cases seem to include video evidence, said Carroll Rhodes, a longtime attorney for the NAACP in Mississippi.

“Every time they bring a case in the Northern District, they have camera footage,” he said.

That makes a difference when it comes to convincing a jury, he said.

“It's extremely difficult to get prosecutions (of law enforcement officers), but lately they have been getting more federal prosecutions because of cameras,” Rhodes said.

Several jurisdictions in Mississippi's Southern District are getting police body cameras, he said. Although the jails have cameras, there's rarely footage available of jail incidents — including escapes, he said.

Other U.S. Attorneys' districts with relatively high numbers of police prosecutions for civil rights violationsalso are in the South: the Northern District of Georgia, which includes Atlanta, with the prosecution of 16 out 44 possible cases; and the District of Maryland, with the prosecution of 13 out of 18 possible cases.

The relatively low number of possible cases in the Maryland and Northern Georgia districts illustrates one problem with the numbers, which come from a Justice Department database known as LIONS, or the Legal Information Office Network System, said Cliff Johnson, a University of Mississippi law professor and director of the university's MacArthur Justice System.

Whenever a federal agency or other source brings a possible crime to the attention of federal prosecutors, they can open a “matter” in the database and record information about how it was handled.

“The determination as to when to open the matter in LIONS and whether it's worthy of even opening the matter ... I'm not sure that those procedures are uniform” across the United States, he said.

That doesn't mean anyone is manipulating the data, just that different offices have different standards for when to open a LIONS entry, he said.

The U.S. Attorney for Northern Georgia couldn't be reached for comment.

The Maryland numbers don't fully reflect the district's activities when it comes to prosecuting police officers for wrongdoing, said Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland. Many of the police prosecutions in his district are public corruption cases rather than civil rights cases, he said.

Rosenstein and other federal prosecutors say fewer cases are brought against police for civil rights violations because the standard of proof under current law is unusually high.

“The issue isn't what we think happened,” Rosenstein said. “The issue is what we think we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court.”

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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