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Former MDOC Employees Face 10 Years for Alleged Inmate Beating; Cross-Burner Pleads Guilty

U.S. Department of Justice Merrick Garland speaking at a press conference
The U.S. Department of Justice charged two former employees of the Mississippi Department of Corrections with beating and injuring an inmate at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Miss. Photo courtesy US Department of Justice

Former Mississippi Department of Corrections employees Jessica Hill, 34, and Nicole Moore, 43, allegedly beat an unresisting inmate at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Miss., and inflicted bodily injuries on the individual, identified simply as L.C. in the indictment. The U.S. Department of Justice announced the federal indictment against the defendants on Dec. 1, 2022, for the incident alleged to have occurred in July 2019.

In an email on Friday, Dec. 2, Hill’s defense attorney Omodare B. Jupiter told the Mississippi Free Press, “We do not have any comment.” Attorney Robert Thomas Rich, who is defending Moore, similarly told the Mississippi Free Press on Dec. 5, 2022,  “As of right now I can’t offer any comment on the case.”

The defendants entered the plea of not guilty at their initial appearance and arraignment following the indictment on Nov. 16, 2022, on one count of deprivation of rights under the color of law before Federal Magistrate Judge F. Keith Ball on Dec. 1, 2022. The judge scheduled the pretrial conference for Dec. 13, 2022, and the jury trial for Jan. 23, 2023, based on the audio recording of the proceeding logged in the court docket.

Hill was a correctional officer, while Moore was a case manager at the facility at the time of the alleged incident. The indictment stated that the two women “willfully deprived inmate L.C. of the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, which is guaranteed and protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”

Hill allegedly used a pepper-spray canister and her fist against L.C., and Moore kicked with her foot. “The offense resulted in bodily injury to L.C. and involved the use of a dangerous weapon,” the indictment said.

Central MS Correctional Facility in Pearl Mississippi
Two Mississippi Department of Corrections workers in 2019 allegedly beat an inmate at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. They are now facing charges in federal court. Photo courtesy MDOC

The Mississippi Department of Corrections Assistant Deputy Commissioner Leo B. Honeycutt III told the Mississippi Free Press via email on Dec. 2, 2022, that the agency’s current leadership does not “make statements about previous administrations.”

In April 2022, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released a report on the conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman stating that the conditions violated inmates’ constitutional rights. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said at the time that the state’s leadership was cooperating with the department to remedy the problems at the facility.

The Department of Justice is continuing its investigation into the conditions at three other prisons—Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville, Miss.; Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Miss.; and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility in Woodville, Miss.—a spokesperson told the Mississippi Free Press in a statement on Nov. 7.

At the Thursday arraignment, the Department of Justice did not move for the detention of the plaintiffs, and the judge released them on an unsecured bond of $10,000 each.

Gulfport Man Pleads Guilty to Cross Burning

On Dec. 1, 2022, a 24-year-old Gulfport resident, Axel A. Cox, pleaded guilty to burning a cross to intimidate his Black neighbors in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits interfering with another person’s housing rights on the basis of race. This followed his indictment and arraignment in federal court in September 2022.

Mugshot of Axel Charles Cox in a yellow jumper
Axel Cox, 24, pled guilty on Dec. 1, 2022, for burning a cross in an attempt to intimidate his Black neighbors in Harrison County on the Gulf Coast. Photo courtesy MDOC

U.S. Southern District of Mississippi District Judge Halil S. Ozerden, sitting in Gulfport, set the sentencing date for March 9, 2023.

Cross-burning has long been an expression of white supremacy used at lynchings and, more generally, to terrorize African Americans, including to scare Black citizens into moving out of white spaces and communities. “As the Klan declined in the late 1920s and 1930s, intimidation became the primary but not exclusive use of the cross,” a Middle Tennessee State University report stated. “In addition, people with no Klan affiliation have burned crosses on the lawns of African Americans moving into all-white neighborhoods.”

Cox waived the right to appeal the conviction and sentence, based on the plea agreement with federal prosecutors from a court document the Mississippi Free Press obtained. Cox’s attorney, James L. Davis III, did not immediately return a call or email to him  on Dec. 5. 2022, for comments on the case.

The U.S. Department of Justice released a press release Friday announcing Cox’s guilty plea, explained how he had committed the crime, and noted that Cox “admitted to violating the Fair Housing Act when he used threatening and racially derogatory remarks toward his Black neighbors and burned a cross to intimidate them.”

Photo of Ku Klux Klan members standing outside around a giant burning cross
Axel Cox burned a cross to intimate his Black neighbors in Harrison County, Miss. He pled guilty to the crime on Dec. 1, 2022. Photo courtesy Confederate till Death on Wikipedia

“Cox stated that he gathered supplies from his residence, put together a wooden cross in his front yard and propped it up so his Black neighbors could see it,” the press release said. “Cox then doused the cross with motor oil and lit it on fire.”

“Cox admitted that he burned the cross because of the victims’ race and because they were occupying a home next to his,” the press release said.

Cox faces up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, or both.

DOJ Civil Rights Division’s Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke noted in the press release that “[b]urning a cross invokes the long and painful history, particularly in Mississippi, of intimidation and impending physical violence against Black people.”

“The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute those who use racially motivated violence to drive people away from their homes or communities,” she said.

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