Mississippi Crime Sparks National Outrage

In June, a group of white teens assaulted a black man in Jackson, Mississippi. Police say one teen then intentionally ran him over with a truck, killing him. The investigation has raised the specter of the state's past. Guest host Allison Keyes discusses different perspectives on the crime with a reporter from WLBT in Jackson and a journalist from The New York Times.

ALLISON KEYES, host: I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, racing to the moon. Twenty-nine teams are vying to build and launch the first privately funded spacecraft to land on the moon. There's millions of dollars at stake. That's in just a minute. But first, to a murder in Mississippi. On June 26th, a black named James Craig Anderson was badly beaten by a group of white teenagers in a Jackson parking lot.

Police say some of the teens then got into a truck and ran over Anderson, killing him. The story became national news when video of the incident was broadcast on CNN this week. Here's Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith discussing the crime in that report.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROBERT SHULER SMITH: There's no doubt they were looking for a black victim to assault and even killed in this instance.

KEYES: Other local officials say the attack was racially motivated and a detective testified that the teens had traveled to Jackson to quote, "mess with someone." 18-year-old Deryl Dedmon allegedly drove the truck and is charged with murder. One other teen is facing simple assault charges in the attack. The incident has sparked visceral reactions across the country and has raised the specter of Mississippi's past. In 1963 civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in Jackson. Prosecutors have called this incident a hate crime and in a moment we'll take a closer look at what that means. But now, we're joined by two reporters who have been covering the case.

David Kenney is a reporter for WLBT, the NBC affiliate in Jackson. He joins us from his home outside the city, and Kim Severson reported on this story for the New York Times. She's the Atlanta bureau chief for The Times and joins us now from the NPR bureau in New York, where she's traveling. Welcome both to the program.

KIM SEVERSON: Hello.

DAVID KENNEY: Thank you.

KEYES: David let me start with you. Tell us exactly what happened that night?

KENNEY: From the accounts we got in the preliminary hearing apparently these teens were up all night partying in Rankin County, which is just adjacent to Hinds County where the murder happened. Officer testified that they came over to mess with someone. They drove to a place called the Metro Inn, and on the video you can see that Mr. Anderson was there. There was testimony that they had found him and picked on him because they felt he was vulnerable.

First they beat him in the parking lot. The video shows that clearly. They left, came back and then at one point Deryl Dedmon, who was driving the truck - you can see in the video he drives right over him. He is charged with murder. Another young man by the name of John Rice is charged with simple assault for the beating.

KEYES: Kim, is it the video that caused The New York Times to get involved in this case or was it a personal interest for you?

SEVERSON: You know, I cover the South for The Times and racial incidents happen down there. There's a particular resonance because of the history and because race relations have a unique quality in the South. For us it just seemed like such an egregious and blatant example of racial tensions in American, that it made it worth the story for us. And in this case there's a suspicion and possibility that this is more than just a one-time incidence.

There maybe a culture of this among whites - teenagers, and young people - fueled in part by social media and a connection and a way of bragging about this sort of thing that maybe wasn't as widespread or possible before digital media took over.

KEYES: David, you're locally based there. Tell us about the suspects? What do you know about them?

KENNEY: Well, they're both 18-years-old and they're both from a city called Brandon, which is basically a suburb of Jackson. Deryl Dedmon is charged with murder. He's being held on an $800,000 bond. He is the one who drove the truck. Now, John Rice - there were two vehicles involved. He was in another vehicle. He is charged with simple assault. There were other teens in the vehicles but they're not being charged at this time.

KEYES: Any idea why that is?

KENNEY: No, we haven't gotten any explanation. My suspicion is that they're cooperating with the prosecutors and they initially didn't come out with this as a hate crime but I believe they've learned more about the inner circle of these teens and that's how they're building their case.

KEYES: Kim, you were saying that there appears to be a culture of hate going on there. What's your evidence for that, briefly, so far?

SEVERSON: Well, certainly there's a lot of communication around, particularly the one young man who was just charged with simple assault. I think the charge was initially murder and a local judge - because he wasn't actually in the truck he was in a different car.

KEYES: In other words he wasn't in the truck that ran over Mr. Anderson.

SEVERSON: That ran over the - right, and his charge was dropped to simple assault and there's a Facebook page of his supporters in which they talk about they're tired of the race card and this is reverse racism and so, I think - and Winston Thompson's an attorney who's working with Mr. Anderson, the victim's family. And he and the district attorney down there are also looking into the ways in which teenagers are cheered on for this kind of action on facebook, My Space, and other digital media. And I think that there is a larger culture that's going on in the South and in some of these towns where there's a predominately black city and white suburbs surrounding them.

KEYES: David, I've got to ask you, you're locally there. Aren't there elements of this story haven't reached national coverage because I understand there are reports that the teens involved are regulars at the hotel and that you yourself have been covering things there but you have not heard of a case similar to this. Is that right?

KENNEY: Right. So, I mean, I talked to some of my co-workers and we can't remember a case like this, a hate crime labeled like this. I did interview some former employees who told me that they had seen the teens there in the past partying in the rooms. This hotel also I've reported on and it's got a really checkered history. There have been multiple shootings there. So, I know this story is going to have a lot of implications when you look at the perception of Mississippi, and it's very important we report all facets of what happened that night and the randomness of this act is still in question in my mind but I'm skeptical as a reporter myself.

We've heard talks that these teens knew Mr. Anderson, but nevertheless that doesn't take away that this was a terrible crime caught on tape.

KEYES: All right, you two, we've got to leave it there. Thank you for joining us. Kim Severson is the Atlanta bureau chief for The New York Times. She joined us from NPR in New York. David Kenney is a reporter for WLBT, the NBC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi. He joined us from his home just outside Jackson. Thanks for joining us.

KENNEY: Thank you.

SEVERSON: Thanks.

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