One tattoo was of a man wearing a Star of David being stabbed. Another was a face tattoo of a lightning bolt in the shape of the Nazi SS symbol. Another was an image of a woodpecker, a symbol that identifies the wearer as a “peckerwood” or follower of White power.
Three men adorned with these White supremacist tattoos were given prison sentences Monday for beating a Black man at a downtown Houston bus stop in August 2011, the first conviction in Texas under a 2009 federal hate crime law.
During sentencing, two of the three defendants apologized to U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt but insisted their tattoos were the legacy of joining White supremacist gangs to survive as young men in tough Texas prisons.
However, authorities were adamant the Aug. 13 beating of Yondell Johnson at a bus stop at Travis and McKinney – only blocks from the federal courthouse – was a hate crime motivated by race. They said four men, who had stripped off their shirts to display their racist tattoos, made an unprovoked attack on the amateur boxer who had spent the day visiting his daughter. One of them used a racial slur in addressing Johnson.
“I did not assault Mr. Johnson because of his race,” Brian Kerstetter, 33, told the judge. “All I did was break up a fight. I’m not a hater.”
Kerstetter received a 6½-year sentence based on an extensive criminal record.
Michael McLaughlin, 41, told the court he had a drinking problem but said he wasn’t a White supremacist.
“I just want the court to know just because I got these tattoos I’m not a card-carrying member of a White supremacist group,” said McLaughlin, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
“The government has to prove hate as the motive,” said McLaughlin’s defense attorney Richard Kuniansky. “And at the end of the day, they had two pieces of evidence – the use of the N-word and tattoos.”
He said his client was a homeless alcoholic whose only racist act was to use the N-word in cursing Black Houston police officers who arrested him after the attack.
Charles Cannon, a 26-year-old welder from Lufkin, had several tattoos of woodpeckers on his neck and chest that are identified with a White supremacist movement.
Cannon, who received a three-year sentence, did not address the court, but his defense attorney, Gus Saper, told the judge his client was sorry.
“My client, at trial, put on several witness and one was his best friend who was Black,” Saper said. “You don’t have Black friends if you are a racist. I think Yondell Johnson decided they were a threat, and he decided to confront them about it.”
Federal prosecutor Saeed Mody told the judge the attack was not a robbery or because of a personal issue the men had with Johnson.
“He was attacked simply because of his race and skin color,” Mody said. “It was four on one. … It’s an act of cowardice.”
Prosecutors dismissed charges against a fourth suspect, Joseph Staggs, 49, who testified against the other three defendants.
A jury convicted the trio in April, the first conviction in Texas under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It was passed by Congress in 2009, and gives the FBI authority to investigate violent crime, including violence directed at the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, as well as crimes committed because of gender, race, color, religion or national origin.
Robert Moossy, deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section, said since the law was passed federal officials have charged 38 defendants including those in Houston in 11 cases.
Johnson did not attend Monday’s sentencing, but Houston community activist Quanell X thanked the government for the prosecution and said Johnson was happy “that justice was served.”