Axel Cox’s Black next-door neighbors moved away from their Gulfport home after the white 24-year-old burned a cross in his front yard while hurling racial slurs at them in December 2020. On March 9, a judge sentenced him to three-and-a-half years in federal prison and ordered him to pay $7,810 in restitution costs.
Following the unveiling of Cox’s federal grand jury indictment in September 2022, he pleaded guilty to interfering with the victims’ housing rights in December 2022. The charge amounts to a violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits violating others’ housing rights based on race. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors dropped a charge of using fire to commit a federal felony, which would have carried a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.
“This is about conduct that occurred that shouldn’t occur in our communities in this situation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Andrea Cabell Jones said in a Gulfport federal courtroom on March 9 before U.S. District Court Judge Halil S. Ozerden. “The victims were terrified. They were shaken. … He was effective. They did move.”
The attorney said Cox acted based on what he had read in books about the Ku Klux Klan.
“He said he had read in books that the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses … to intimidate Black people. He took these actions solely because of the color of their skin,” she said. “He took measures that historically evoke intimidation and fear in Black people across the nation. We would just reiterate that individuals in our community should not feel that they can’t live where they want to live because of the color of their skin because people can behave in this manner.”
‘Racism That Still Plagues Our Society’
Cross-burning has long been an expression of white supremacy used at lynchings and, more generally, to terrorize African Americans, including to run them 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,” Middle Tennessee State University’s First Amendment Encyclopedia explains about the second iteration of the white-terrorist group after the original Klan used violence to help end Reconstruction. “In addition, people with no Klan affiliation have burned crosses on the lawns of African Americans moving into all white neighborhoods.”
In a statement after the sentencing decision, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the sentence “demonstrates the importance of holding people accountable for threatening the safety and security of Black people in their homes because of the color of their skin or where they are from.”
In a press release on March 10 following Cox’s sentencing, Council on American-Islamic Relations National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said Cox’s actions reflect lingering racism in the country,
“This act of bigotry serves as a reminder of the racism that still plagues our society,” Hooper said in the statement on March 10. “The strong sentence imposed sends a clear message that hate crimes will not be tolerated in our communities.”
“It is our collective responsibility to ensure that all Americans are able to live free from fear and intimidation,” he added.
‘They Moved From Their Home Out of Fear’
Judge Ozerden said the events began on Dec. 3, 2020, when a neighbor shot Axel Cox’s family dog, which had been roaming the neighbor’s property “and had been acting in an aggressive manner towards a minor child.”
“This incident sparked a series of confrontations between Mr. Cox, his family and the victims, all of whom were Black,” the judge said. “Throughout the night of Dec. 3, 2020, and following into the next, the defendant, as Ms. Jones put it, egged on by his mother and her boyfriend, entered the victim’s property, threatened to shoot or kill them, shone bright lights through their windows and took photographs of their property.”
Later that night, Ozerden continued, Cox “constructed a crude cross out of spare wood before leaning it against the table in plain view of the victims’ residence and then lighting it on fire.”
“Throughout these encounters, Cox and his family repeatedly referred to the victims with racial slurs, in particular the N-word, and shouted out other racial slurs,” he said. “Ultimately, they moved from their home out of fear for their safety, and Mr. Cox later admitted to law enforcement that he burned the cross to send a message to his Black neighbors and was well aware of the effect it would have on them.”
Judge: Cross Burning Was To ‘Terrorize’ Black Neighbors
Axel Cox’s lawyer, James L. Davis III, had asked the court for a lesser sentence, but in the courtroom on Thursday, he expressed surprise at Cox’s criminal history, which includes criminal convictions for drug-paraphernalia possession, receiving stolen property, resisting arrest, methamphetamine possession, driving under the influence, traffic violations and disorderly conduct. In May, Cox began an eight-year sentence in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections for receiving stolen property and possession of a controlled substance.
“I thought the guidelines were fair, except I just didn’t know Axel had all these little misdemeanor problems that read him up pretty high,” Davis said. “And that’s why I would request the court to consider some type of variance because, after he finishes this, he’s got to go finish a state sentence, so we need leniency.”
Cox’s attorney noted that his client was “burying the dog at that time” he put the cross up. “Isn’t that correct?” he asked his client.
“Yes, sir,” Cox replied. “That’s how it came about. They started making racial comments and stuff towards me ’cause they thought I was shining my headlights in the front yard of the house, and I really wasn’t, I was just out there shining the headlights so I could see to bury the dog and it just—they, they made a racialistic comment, and I just went with it. I wasn’t in my right state of mind.”
“He knows he made a mistake,” Davis told the judge.
“I messed up, your honor,” Cox said.
Federal prosecutors asked for a sentence of between 30 and 36 months. Judge Ozerden rejected that recommendation and instead sentenced Cox to 42 months to “reflect the seriousness of the offense.”
“It is a very serious offense, involving what one could describe is in some ways as terroristic conduct, even though no physical harm or injury resulted to the victims—thankfully—the conduct, in this case, was intended to and did, in fact, terrorize these individuals to the point where they moved from their neighborhood, and it’s because of that conduct, given its outrageous nature in and of itself, but also given the history behind it, that these laws exist: to prevent exactly this kind of behavior,” the judge said Thursday.
Ozerden, who has served on the court since former President George W. Bush appointed him in 2007, said his court had “never in my recollection had a defendant who was on probation for four separate offenses at the same time.”
“The record easily supports that the conduct, in this case, shows a lack of respect for the law, as does Mr. Cox’s criminal history,” he said. “He apparently feels that there should not be any consequences for his conduct, and if anyone should have been acting on the straight and narrow, it would’ve been someone who’s on probation for four separate offenses at the time this occurred.”
“The defendant admitted at his arraignment that the crosses were burned in an area that was occupied predominantly by African American residents and that the purpose of the cross burnings was to intimidate African American residents to make them mad and to make them fear for their safety.”
Cox’s Mother: ‘All Parties Were Guilty’
In the courtroom on March 9, Cox’s mother, Wanda Lynn Carter, said her son was a good man, but claimed the neighbors provoked him when they shot the dog.
“The whole thing is really messed up because all parties were guilty in this, you know. The people across the street were going to start a riot. I stopped that, but he’s non-violent,” she said. “There was a lot of wrong going on in the whole situation, but the dog that they shot across the street in the middle of the road, you know, it’s just—all parties were guilty. And I want y’all to please have some respect for my son because he is a good man and a hard worker, and I appreciate it.”
On March 9, Axel Cox described to the court what he claims happened before he burned the cross in December 2020.
“I don’t have hatred toward nobody because of their color. It’s just that dog, the dog they shot. They couldn’t have done that at a worse time,” he said. “I had lost my son, my grandma, and I left for a little while, and after about a month, I finally came home and my little brother said, ‘Keep your eye on my dog.’ And my grandma just bought him this puppy. I was inside frying fish, and I walked outside, and that’s when I heard a gunshot. And it just got out—it just got out of hand. That’s all it really was, your honor.”
Following Cox’s and his mother’s remarks, U.S. Attorney Jones said the defendant had already confessed his motive for burning the cross.
“He admitted at his plea that he burned it in their yard because they were Black,” the prosecutor said. “He said he was going to kill them and used the n-word repeatedly, and his family members and family friends stood out there with him, egging him on saying the same thing.”