Skip to comments.Jury sends message: $24 million awarded in Texas cross-burning case
Posted on 02/27/2003 6:16:00 AM PST by berserker
A jury awarded more than $24 million to a black family Wednesday, punishing the five men who burned a cross in their Katy yard. The jury forewoman said the award is a strong signal that racist acts come with a heavy price.
"We wanted to send a big message," Shirlene Williams, 41, said later. Williams said the jurors had at one point arrived at a figure but were unhappy with it, and went back and added more.
The eight-member jury found that Matthew Marshall, Corydon Parsons, Paul Bergeron, Darin White and Wayne Mathews, all 23, were guilty of negligence, defamation and malice for burning the cross in the front yard of Dwayne and Maria Ross in June 2000. All five had already been convicted in criminal proceedings, and all received prison sentences. Parsons and Marshall remain behind bars.
The jury also found Mathews' father, Kent Mathews, negligent for allowing the five men to drink and assemble the cross at his home. The jury, however, determined that his negligence was not the cause of the cross burning. Still, because the defendants were all found guilty of conspiracy, he remains liable.
None of the defendants was in court when the verdict was announced.
Marshall and his parents, who were not in court during the trial, had reached a $490,000 settlement with the Ross family prior to Wednesday's verdict. The settlement means Marshall does not have to pay any part of the jury award.
"The jury has spoken," said Charlie Parker, who represents White, Bergeron and Wayne Mathews. During the trial, Parker had argued that the five defendants had owned up to the deed and had already been punished with jail time and fines.
When asked about a possible appeal, Parker said: "My clients are indigent -- they cannot afford an appeal."
Still, the outcome opens the door for insurance claims against carriers for all the defendants, said the family's attorney, Benjamin L. Hall III. He insists the $24,125,861 verdict is not a hollow victory.
"Eight conscientious Texans set the price for anyone thinking to burn a cross on a black family's yard -- and that price is over $24 million," said Hall, a former Houston city attorney. "I am as certain that this judgment will be paid as I was certain we would win the case."
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, who presided over the seven-day case, had ruled Tuesday that evidence showed all the defendants were guilty of conspiracy, trespass, public nuisance and civil rights violations. Jurors only had to deliberate on the other claims, including mental anguish, loss of privacy, lost wages and other damages.
Maria Ross, who cried after the verdict was read, and her husband both said their case was not about money. They had originally sought $250,000 in damages from each defendant, but that figure was later increased to several million.
The couple, who had at one point lived in Louisiana and have since moved to California, said the verdict is a warning to others considering committing hate crimes. "This sends a strong message to the Katy community -- to communities throughout the country -- that respect for others is not only taught in school but has to be taught at home," Dwayne Ross said.
He added that the criminal case did not vindicate them and they felt they needed to pursue civil claims.
The move was applauded by nationally recognized civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, who along with Joe Levin established Alabama's Southern Poverty Law Center. The center helps victims pursue damages against hate crime groups. "I commend the plaintiffs for going forward in a civil suit that will hopefully be a message to those individuals out there that to do this, they'll have to pay through the pocketbook," said Dees during a telephone interview. "And to parents, that they need to be more responsible for what their kids are doing when it comes to hateful behavior."
Penny Weaver, a spokeswoman for the center, said incidents of hate crimes -- not only in the South but throughout the country -- are on the rise. "When these kinds of decisions come down, it does make the public more aware of how intimidating and how powerful symbols are," Weaver said. "Too often in our past, those kinds of incidents have been dismissed and haven't been dealt with as seriously as we should."
During the trial, Hall presented evidence about the defendants' role in the June 19, 2000, incident. Wayne Mathews provided pillowcases for hoods and plastic water bottles filled with gasoline. White got the wood for building the cross from his back yard. The defendants assembled the cross at Mathews' home. They carted the cross in Bergeron's truck. They attached rags to help ignite the wood and doused the cross with gasoline, and then Marshall leaned the cross on a tree and set it ablaze.
The defendants had said the incident was a prank prompted by binge drinking and drug use. However, jurors heard from an FBI agent who testified that at least two of the defendants had talked about committing the hate crime at least a week before.
Good news for the lawyers, no doubt about that.
I think this kind of racial bigotry is horrible, and deserves to be punished by law. But I'm troubled by the disparities in the law. Knock someone on the head in NYC and steal their money, and you'll probably get off with a warning the first four or five times. Offend against political correctness, and they'll throw the book at you.
Cross burning has always struck me as a blasphemy against Christianity as well as racial bigotry. The KKK had some strange ideas.
What??? Sure it's about the money, otherwise you wouldn't have asked for some!
What kind of "damages" do $1.25M cover? How can you stand there and say you were hurt to the tune of $1.25 MILLION, and then say it's not about the money?
BTW, where does Marshall get $490,000? Cross-burning insurance?
Ah, which brings up an interesting question: If the cross had been burned solely to blaspheme the religion would the civil rights of the property owners -- well know, devote Christians-- have been violated and could they have sued and won?
But that is what criminal courts are for, and these guys had already been charged criminally. The issue of "safety" is one based upon criminal threats of violence. It is not a civil issue where there are actual quantifiable damages. If these people property was damaged by the cross burning, then they should collect damages based upon repairing the property.
This idea of people getting millions of money for a criminal act perpetrated against them where there was no physical damage or property damage is totally absurd and is needs to end. Restitution as part of the criminal proceeding(when physical or property damage is a result of the crime) is all that is needed to make things just.
My friend, you just may have swerved into something. Afrer all, pc or not, the fact remains there are two sides to every story.
According to the article, they previously lived in Louisiana and have since moved to California. I would say they have no reason not to feel any less safe than you or I.
"How would your kids be affected?"
Did they have children? The article didn't mention children. Why are you bringing up the question of children?
"The actual award was roughly $500,000. That is not out of line ..."
If that were true, I could understand it. But it isn't true.
They initially wanted $1.25 million ($250K from each of five defendants) but "that figure was later increased to several million".
Then, they settled out-of-court with Marshall for $490,000. Then the jury awarded them $24 million from the remaining four defendants.
Remember this? In 1987, Al Sharpton spreads the incendiary Tawana Brawley hoax, insisting heatedly that a 15-year-old black girl was abducted, raped, and smeared with feces by a group of white men. He singles out Steve Pagones, a young (now former)district attorney. Pagones is wholly innocent -- the crime never occurred -- but Sharpton taunts him: "If we're lying, sue us, so we can . . . prove you did it."
Pagones did sue, and 11 years later, while living under that lie, was awarded not $24 million, but $65,000.
But you have no problem with $24 million for a cross burning, even after the defendants served prison time. What a world.