By MICHAEL GOLDBERG
Associated Press/Report for America
BRANDON, Miss. (AP) — Six white former Mississippi law officers pleaded guilty on Monday to state charges for torturing two Black men in a racist assault. All six had recently admitted their guilt in a connected federal civil rights case.
In the gruesome crimes committed by men tasked with enforcing the law, federal prosecutors saw echoes of Mississippi’s dark history, including the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers after a deputy handed them off to the Ku Klux Klan. Locally, the sheriff whose deputies committed the crimes this year called it the worst case of police brutality he had ever seen.
Prosecutors say some of the officers nicknamed themselves the “Goon Squad” because of their willingness to use excessive force and cover up attacks including the assault that ended with a deputy shooting one victim in the mouth.
In January, the officers entered a house without a warrant and handcuffed and assaulted the two men with stun guns, a sex toy and other objects. The officers mocked them with racial slurs throughout a 90-minute torture session, then devised a cover-up that included planting drugs and a gun, leading to false charges that stood against the victims for months.
Their conspiracy unraveled after one officer told the sheriff he had lied, leading to confessions from the others. The charges against the victims weren’t dropped until June after federal and state investigators got involved, according to their attorney.
The men include five former Rankin County sheriff’s deputies — Brett McAlpin, Hunter Elward, Christian Dedmon, Jeffrey Middleton and Daniel Opdyke — and a former police officer from the city of Richland, Joshua Hartfield, who was off duty during the assault.
Elward pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for shooting his handgun in the victim’s mouth in what authorities called a “mock execution,” thinking the weapon would dry fire without a bullet in the chamber.
They appeared Monday in jumpsuits with the names of the jails covered by tape.
They agreed to sentences recommended by state prosecutors ranging from five to 30 years, although the judge isn’t bound by that. Time served for the state convictions will run concurrently with the potentially longer federal sentences they’ll receive in November.
The victims — Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker — arrived together to Monday’s hearing and sat in the front row, just feet from their attackers’ families. They were embraced by Monica Lee, the mother of Damien Cameron, a Black man who died in Elward’s custody in 2021.
“I enjoyed the view of seeing the walk of shame. Head down, the disgust everybody felt for them and that they feel for themselves,” Parker said after the officers were led away in shackles. “I hope this is a lesson to everybody out there: Justice will be served.”
The charges followed an Associated Press investigation in March that linked some of the officers to at least four violent encounters since 2019 that left two Black men dead. In addition to Jenkins’ lasting injuries, another Black man also accused them of shoving a gun inside his mouth. The Justice Department launched a civil rights probe in February.
All six of the former officers pleaded guilty to state charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to hinder prosecution. Dedmon and Elward, who kicked in a door, also admitted to home invasion.
After details of the case became public, some residents pointed to a police culture they said gives officers carte blanche to abuse their power.
Rankin County’s majority-white suburbs have been a destination for white flight out of the capital, Jackson, which is home to one of the highest percentages of Black residents of any major U.S. city.
The officers warned Jenkins and Parker to “go back to Jackson or ‘their side’ of the Pearl River,” the federal charging documents say.
Jenkins and Parker were targeted because a white neighbor complained that two Black men were staying at the home with a white woman, court documents show.
Parker was a childhood friend of the homeowner, Kristi Walley, who was at the hospital at the time. She’s been paralyzed since she was 15, and Parker was helping care for her.
“He’s a blessing. Every time I’ve needed him he’s been here,” Walley said in a February interview. “There were times I’ve been living here by myself and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Parker and Jenkins have left Mississippi and aren’t sure they will ever return for a long stay.
Jenkins still has difficulty speaking because of his injuries. The gunshot lacerated his tongue and broke his jaw before exiting his neck. He can only eat soft foods easily and has recurrent nightmares.
“As far as justice, I knew we were going to get it,” Jenkins has said. “But I thought it was maybe going to take longer.”
Other consequences remain to be determined.
Lee claims Elward and a current deputy not linked to the Jenkins assault killed her son. A grand jury declined to indict Elward after he punched Cameron and shocked him with a stun gun, but a Rankin County judge ruled Wednesday that Lee’s claims of excessive force could move forward against him, and Lee said the FBI told her they’re reviewing the case.
Separately, Carvis Johnson, the Black man who said another deputy pointed a gun into his mouth, filed a federal lawsuit from behind bars alleging that McAlpin beat him during an arrest and told him to stay out of Rankin County.
Jenkins and Parker, meanwhile, are seeking $400 million in damages in their federal civil rights lawsuit against Rankin County.
Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey applauded the investigations that led to the guilty pleas.
“I believe today’s guilty pleas show the community that our system of checks and balances is effective,” Bailey said in a statement after the hearing. “An unbiased and impartial investigation into these former officers uncovered their criminal actions.”
Bailey had acknowledged his lax body camera policy failed. After the officers pleaded guilty, he promised to change it.
Malik Shabazz, one of Jenkins and Parkers’ attorneys, said Bailey is “directly responsible for the vicious acts of his subordinates.”
Court documents unsealed by federal prosecutors suggest only some members of the Goon Squad participated in the illegal raid. There are other Rankin County deputies “known to the United States Attorney,” the documents say.
“We would certainly hope that they continue to investigate the Goon Squad and other outstanding claims that may exist against these officers, as well as other officers,” said Trent Walker, another attorney for Jenkins and Parker.
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.