Alleged White Supremacists Beat Black Man, But DA Doesn't File Hate Crime Charge

In a crime that hearkened back to the skinhead days of the early '90s, or modern-day Dallas, four white men remain behind bars today charged with assaulting a black man at a downtown bus stop early Sunday morning. Police want the incident classed as a hate crime, but the Harris County District Attorney's office has been reluctant to designate it as such.

The DA's office has issued a statement on the matter, which we have after the jump...

Arrested were 40-year-old Michael Joe McLaughlin and 32-year-old Brian Kerstetter, both of Cypress; 48-year-old homeless man Joseph Staggs; and 25-year-old Charles Allen Cannon of the Cloverleaf neighborhood, the closest thing modern-day Houston proper has to a white ghetto.

Police told Channel 26's Isiah Carey that the men claimed to be white supremacists, and police have said that they are members of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. Carey reported that they attacked the man because he was black. The victim was hospitalized after the attack.

Kerstetter and Cannon publicly claim to be "Peckerwoods" on Facebook, where they are friends. In prison slang, a Peckerwood is someone at least loosely affiliated with a white prison gang.

Kerstetter and McLaughlin have had ample opportunity to make such connections. Kerstetter's criminal history dates back to a 1997 felony burglary conviction. Since then, he's been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence twice and also three more felonies, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, robbery and, just last year, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

McLaughlin's rap sheet dates back to a DWI he got at the age of 19 in 1989. Since then he's been convicted of auto theft, felony burglary of a vehicle, and robbery-bodily injury, for which he was sentenced to 13 years in TDC.

At the time of the incident, Cannon was freshly released from a 30-day stay in Harris County Jail after being convicted of assault after a nasty incident this March. According to a police report, Cannon and his wife Maria Guadalupe Cannon and two friends randomly assaulted a couple who were enjoying a sunny afternoon on the banks of the San Jacinto River. For kicking a man who was wrestling a friend of his after that friend had picked a fight, Cannon was sentenced to a month in jail. Maria Cannon, all 4'9" and 90 pounds of her, is alleged to have taken a cellphone from a woman at gunpoint in the same incident and remains behind bars awaiting her day in court.

Perhaps the fact that Maria Cannon is Hispanic is one of the complicating factors in this case. Neither Kerstetter -- who also once lived with a Hispanic woman (whom he is alleged to have beaten) -- nor Cannon seem to have any qualms about crossing the brown-white divide. Both also have numerous Hispanic friends, and when Cannon assaulted the couple on the San Jacinto River, two of his accomplices were Latinos.

On the other hand, neither Kerstetter nor Cannon nor anyone else in their circle of friends seem to be friendly with any black people.

Or perhaps it's a case of once-bitten twice shy for the DA's office. In September 2009, in their first attempt at one of these cases, a grand jury declined the DA's request to stack a hate crime enhancement on three white men accused of attacking a black ice cream vendor in northwest Harris County while calling him a "nigger." In the end, one of those men walked free of any charges, a second was convicted of criminal mischief and received probation, and a third was sentenced to a year in Harris County Jail for simple assault.

UPDATE August 18: The DA's office has released this statement in regards to this case:

UPDATE: "Hate crime" enhancement decisions are made after a criminal charge is filed. After a careful assessment of the facts and the evidence, the trial prosecutor determines if bias or prejudice can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If so, the defense is notified and the judge or jury decides whether or not the motive is proven.

The law specifies which offenses can be enhanced with hate crime allegations. First degree felonies cannot be so enhanced. For class A misdemeanors, the maximum punishment does not change with this finding, but the minimum jail time can be increased to 180 days if the jury makes a finding of bias or prejudice.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office takes all crimes of this nature seriously, and they are carefully scrutinized to determine if the offense is one where an affirmative finding of this nature should be sought.

Since these guys are all facing class A misdemeanor assault charges, the most they can receive on conviction is a year in the county jail. Should a jury conclude the crime was hate-based, the minimum punishment would be six months.

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