A white teenager pleaded guilty to murder and a hate crime Wednesday for running over a black man with his pickup truck in a killing a judge called a stain on Mississippi that will take years to fade.
Deryl Dedmon, 19, apologized to the victim's family before he received two life sentences for the June 26 death of James Craig Anderson, a middle-aged car plant worker who loved to sing in his church choir and was remembered for his sense of humor.
Dedmon, a slight, blonde man wearing a blue jumpsuit, looked down as prosecutors described the killing. Dedmon admitted that he and a group of white teens were partying in Puckett, a small town outside the capital city, when he suggested they find a black man to harass and went to Jackson because of its majority-black population. They found Anderson before dawn outside a hotel. He was beaten before Dedmon ran over him.
Prosecutors said Dedmon and others had targeted blacks for harassment before, usually homeless or drunk people who weren't likely to report it to police.
The victim's sister, Barbara Anderson Young, fought back tears when she addressed the court.
"My brother Craig would give you the shirt off of his back. Because of my brother, James Craig Anderson, our lives were richer, with love, respect and a love of God," she said. "We, the Anderson family, are praying for racial reconciliation not just in Mississippi but all over this land and country. We are praying for the defendant, Dedmon, and his family that they find peace."
When it was his turn to speak, Dedmon's shackles rattled as he turned and faced the Anderson family.
"I am sincerely sorry. I do take full responsibility for my actions on that night. I pray for y'all's family every day ... and that God will soften your hearts to forgive me," Dedmon said.
Members of both families, sitting on opposite sides of a wooden court bench, wiped away tears.
"I was young. I was dumb. I was ignorant ... I was not raised the way that I acted that night. I was raised in a godly house. As I stand before you today, I am a changed man. I am a godly man. God has showed me to see no colors. God showed me that we are all made in the image of God so we are all based on the same thing ... I do not ask y'all to forget, but I do ask y'all to forgive."
Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill Sr. had the last word. "Your prejudice has brought shame upon you and placed a great stain on the state of Mississippi. Whatever excuse you may offer for what you have done, forget that. There's no excuse that you can offer for the family of Mr. Anderson or to your fellow Mississippians who have to try to reconcile the horrible damage you have caused," Weill said.
Weill recalled the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers who were murdered and buried in an earthen dam in a rural area in what became known as "Mississippi Burning."
"All the hard work we have done to move our state forward from that earthen dam in Neshoba County to here has been stained by you. A stain that will take years to fade," the judge said.
The case received widespread attention after a video of Anderson's death was obtained by news organizations, including The Associated Press.
The video, taken by a hotel surveillance camera, shows a green Ford truck back up in the hotel parking lot, then lunge forward. Anderson's shirt is illuminated in the headlights before he disappears under the vehicle. Police said Dedmon was driving the truck and later bragged that he ran over Anderson, using a racial slur to describe him.
Dedmon was indicted for capital murder, which in Mississippi carries a sentence of death or life in prison without parole, but District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith said prosecutors couldn't have gotten a conviction. For capital murder, there must be an underlying offense, which had been robbery. Smith said that the investigation revealed that the group did not take Anderson's wallet, as investigators first believed.
Anderson's family also asked prosecutors not to pursue the death penalty, saying they oppose it. They have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against seven teens, including two young girls who were allegedly in the truck with Dedmon.
One of the teens, John Aaron Rice, is charged with simple assault in the case. Authorities said he left the scene in another vehicle before Anderson was killed. Rice has pleaded not guilty and is free on a $5,000 bond.
The FBI has been investigating the case, too, and the judge told Dedmon that his guilty plea in state court would not prevent him from facing federal charges.
Smith said after the hearing there may be additional arrests and promised more details at a news conference Thursday. Smith said this is the first hate crime prosecution in Mississippi that he could find.
"This guilty plea is just the beginning," Smith said.