First Time Federal Hate Crime Law Used In Houston Conviction

Under the federal hate crime law, three men are convicted for the brutal beating of a black man at a downtown Houston bus stop. They are the first in Houston to be tried under the law.

The three were convicted of attacking Yondell Johnson at the intersection of McKinney and Travis downtown, under the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr hate crime law.

Shortly before the beating, the trio apparently shouted racial slurs, and under state law they could have been charged with misdemeanor assault. But the federal government stepped in and made the charges tougher.

The victim was not present, but community activist Quannel X spoke on behalf of Johnson outside the courthouse.

“We commend the federal government, we commend the Department of Justice for doing the right and just thing in this case, and I believe that the court today sent a very clear message, that white supremacists and white supremest groups not be tolerated.”

Federal Judge Kenneth Hoyt gave 33 yr old Brian Kerstetter the longest sentence, 77 months. 26 year old Charles Cannon got 37 months and 41 yr old Michael McLaughlin was sentenced to 30 months. McLaughlin and Kerstetter apologized in court, but Cannon’s attorney told Judge Hoyt his client was sorry.

Prosecutors took note of their troubled upbringing, but told them they must be accountable for their actions.

Robert Moossy is with the Department of Justice’s civil rights division.

“Those three defendants were sentenced, in what of the first applications of that law in the country and the first application of that law here in Texas, to recognize the hard work of both state and federal law enforcement, to try to bring some justice to these kinds of crimes. In the last year, the Department Of Justice has convicted more defendants of hate crimes, than in the prior decade.”

From left to right: Robert J. Moossy, Jr., Acting Section Chief, Criminal Section Civil Rights Division Department of Justice; Stephen L. Morris, Special Agent in Charge FBI Houston Division; Martin Cominsky, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League

Prosecutors say there was no motive other than the victim’s race. And because of the color of his skin, the three men attacked him — punching and kicking him for several minutes.

Martin Cominsky is regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“We believe that that motivation was because of bias. We believe that their words, their tattoos, their actions and their history showed that.”

Cominsky says the law was expanded to include not only race and religion, but gender identities, sexual orientation and disabilities.

“The new federal law adds teeth to fighting hate and bigotry in the United States. We have a strong hate crimes law in Texas and we’re fortunate to be able to use that. But there are times that the collaboration of federal authorities and local authorities is important. In this case that proved to really be valuable, and to get strong convictions and sentences against these people.”

Charges were dismissed against a fourth suspect, Joseph Stags, who testified against the other three.

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