HOUSTON (AP) - Three white men convicted of attacking a black man at a Houston bus stop last summer were given prison sentences on Monday ranging from 2 1/2 years to more than six years in the first Texas case to fall under a relatively new federal hate crime law.
Before being sentenced, Michael McLaughlin and Brian Kerstetter apologized for what they had done but insisted that they were not racist and that their actions were not motivated by white supremacist beliefs. The third defendant, Charles Cannon, did not speak during the court hearing but his attorney said his client was sorry.
Authorities insisted the actions of all three men had been motivated by racial hatred.
"The jury found these three defendants attacked the victim in this case because of the color of (his) skin," said Robert Moossy Jr., acting section chief of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division's Criminal Section.
All three were convicted in April under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act , passed in 2009 and named after two well-known hate crime victims. The federal law allows for more lengthy prison sentences than the state assault charges that were originally filed against the three men, so local prosecutors turned the case over to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The federal law criminalizes violent acts or attempted violent acts that occur because of such characteristics as a person's race, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
The victim in the Texas case, Yondell Johnson, did not attend Monday's sentencing hearing. But Houston community activist Quanell X, a spokesman for the victim and his family, said Johnson was happy "that justice was served."
Kerstetter received the longest sentence — 77 months — from U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt because of his long criminal history, including convictions for robbery and aggravated assault. Cannon received a 37-month sentence and McLaughlin was sentenced to 30 months. All three men had faced up to 10 years in prison.
The convicted men had approached Johnson in August 2011 at a bus stop and tried to intimidate him by taking off their shirts and showing him their white supremacist tattoos, Moossy said. When Johnson tried to ignore the men, they attacked him by punching and kicking his face, head and body after knocking him to the ground.
Authorities said Johnson was not seriously injured because he was able to fight off his attackers before police arrived.
Before being sentenced, both Kerstetter and McLaughlin told Hoyt that their tattoos were not a reflection of who they were and that they had to get them while in prison on other crimes in order to survive their incarcerations.
"I did not assault Mr. Johnson because of his race," Kerstetter said. "All I did was break up a fight. I'm not a hater."
McLaughlin blamed his drinking for attacking Johnson and that "just because I got these tattoos, I'm not a card carrying member of a white supremacist group."
"It doesn't matter how you rationalize your behavior. It's not going to be tolerated," said Stephen Morris, special agent in charge of the Houston FBI office.
Since the hate crime law was passed in 2009, 38 defendants have been charged nationwide — including Cannon, Kerstetter and McLaughlin — in 11 cases, Moossy said. The first conviction under the new law took place in Arkansas in 2011. Charges have also been filed in Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington.
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