2nd white man sentenced in 2017 Mississippi cross burning

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A second white man has been sentenced to federal prison for his part in burning a cross in 2017 in the yard of an African American family in south Mississippi.

During a hearing Tuesday in Hattiesburg, U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett sentenced Graham Williamson, 38, to three years in prison.

Williamson pleaded guilty Aug. 5 to intimidating and interfering with fair housing and conspiring to use fire or explosives to commit a felony. The housing charge is a federal civil rights violation.

Prosecutors said Williamson and another man, Louie Bernard Revette, built a wooden cross and burned it near the home of an African American teenager on Oct. 24, 2017, "with the intention of intimidating and frightening" black residents of Seminary, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Jackson.

"The defendant invoked a terrifying symbol of racial violence to threaten and intimidate the victims for no other reason than their race and where they lived," Eric Dreiband, assistant U.S. attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement after Williamson was sentenced. "Hate crimes like this contravene our society's well-established principles of equality and freedom from race-based intimidation."

Revette received an 11-year sentence in September, months after pleading guilty to interfering with housing rights and using fire during commission of a federal felony.

Cross burnings have historically been used by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to rally supporters and terrorize black people in the South and elsewhere.

In 2017, a man pleaded guilty to federal charges after prosecutors said he and three other men burned a cross more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) high in the front yard of an interracial couple's home in Port Richey, Florida, in 2012.

Other cross burnings in the past decade have occurred in Richmond Hill, Georgia; Minor Hill, Tennessee; Woodland, Pennsylvania; Salado, Arkansas; and Bennington Township, Ohio, among other places, according to Justice Department records.

Michelle A. Sutphin, special agent in charge of the Jackson Division of the FBI, said in a statement Tuesday that prosecuting civil rights violations remains a priority for the bureau in Mississippi.

"When people violate the civil rights of others for the sole purpose of intimidation, specifically burning a cross as in this case, it terrorizes an entire community," Sutphin said. "Mississippians shouldn't have to fear for their safety within their own neighborhoods, and this case should send a strong message to those who threaten others based on race or color."