ONTD Political

Victim's son: 'They ran him over because he was black'

5:50 pm - 01/19/2013
TW: Racism, somewhat graphic description of collision

White teen driver hits and kills black Mississippi Sunday school teacher Johnny Lee Butts

Como, Mississippi (CNN) -- It was a hot Sunday morning last July when, right on schedule at 6:30 a.m., 61-year-old Johnny Lee Butts left his rural Mississippi home on his morning ritual, a 4-mile walk.

His neighbor, Otis Brooks, says Butts, a Sunday school teacher, waved as he passed his front door wearing a blue T-shirt.

Brooks remembers that his neighbor's skin tone was easily visible that morning. "You could tell he was black; you could see his arms." The point would become important later.

At nearly 7 a.m., about an hour after sunrise, three white teenagers were barreling down Panola County Mississippi Highway 310 in a white Monte Carlo. Two of the three teens later admitted they had been heavily drinking vodka and smoking marijuana all night. They were headed right toward Butts.

The two teen passengers said they and the driver, 18-year-old Matthew Whitten "Whit" Darby, spotted a man walking on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.

In statements to police and also in statements given to a grand jury, all obtained exclusively by CNN, the two teenagers, a then-15-year-old and 18-year-old Tony Hopper Jr., described what happened next.

"We see a walker on the side of the road. The complete left side of the road while we are on the complete right side of the road," the unidentified teen told a police lieutenant. "And I pointed out to say, 'watch out there is a walker there...'"

The unnamed teen continued his story: "Whit slightly turns the steering wheel and I saw him. 'Watch out, don't do nothing stupid' and then he just keep turning the steering wheel and eventually before we knew it he ran him straight over."

"He didn't slow down," Hopper said in a statement to a deputy sheriff.

The deputy asked: "He never hit his brakes?" Hopper replied: "No sir."

"Do you think he hit him on purpose?" asked the deputy.

"Yes, sir, I do," said Hopper.

Butts was hit from behind by the Monte Carlo, which was traveling somewhere between 55 and 70 mph, according to the documents. The car violently tossed him into the air, slamming him into the windshield, and his head struck the rear windshield. Butts' body hit the car with such force that the windshield collapsed into the car, bending the steering wheel back sharply. His leg was nearly severed.

Butts' body was found lying in the road, 172 feet from where the car hit him, the documents show.

Darby stopped his badly damaged car. His two passengers told police they got out and looked at Butts' pummeled body. Then they got back in the car and Darby sped away. Darby drove them to a house where they'd been partying, according to the documents, and the two teen passengers tried to sleep. Darby left the house alone and drove on to his grandmother's home.

Much later that day, the two teen passengers turned themselves in to police. Darby was arrested, telling police exactly what the two other teens said he would say, that he hit a deer. Darby denied he was drinking or smoking marijuana.

Darby and his lawyer, along with Hopper and the unnamed teen, are not talking to CNN. Darby hasn't entered a plea.

Seven months after his father's death, Donny Butts, Johnny's only child, retraced the route where his dad walked every morning. He visited the cross he'd previously laid at the spot where his father died.

Darby is in jail, charged with murder, but he is not charged with the added crime of "hate."

In this racially charged area of rural Mississippi, Confederate flags fly in front of homes just down the road from where Johnny Butts was killed. The Butts family and many other African-Americans in this community say the police, the district attorney and white law enforcement of Panola County aren't investigating why Johnny Lee Butts was killed. They say the motive was hate.

"They knew he was black," said Donny Butts. "And that's the only reason they ran him over because he was black. Point blank."

Donny Butts says he was told that the district attorney had said flat out that this was not a crime of race. "Well what was it? I want to know what was it, if it wasn't racist. It was just hate? I don't understand."

If the killing of Johnny Butts sounds hauntingly familiar, it's because it is, to a degree.

Just a year before Johnny Butts was killed in north Mississippi, another African-American man was killed by a group of white teens about 160 miles south in Jackson, Mississippi. James Craig Anderson, 47, died after he was beaten and run over by a truck driven by Deryl Dedmon, who was part of a group of seven whites, mostly teenagers, from largely white Rankin County who decided to "go f**k with some n*****s" after a night of partying and drinking, law enforcement officials have said, quoting some of the suspects in the case.

Anderson's death became national news after CNN obtained and released video that showed the gruesome murder as it happened.

The deadly attack and the shocking videotape prompted several large marches and prayer vigils in Jackson, a city of about 537,000 people.

Eventually, six white teens involved in that incident pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes for the attack on Anderson and for numerous other attacks on African-Americans. The driver of the truck also pleaded guilty to state murder and hate-crime charges and was sentenced to life in prison.

Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, an African-American, was the prosecutor in the Anderson case. In the case of Johnny Butts, the prosecuting district attorney, John Champion, is white. Many African-Americans in northern Mississippi say they believe the district attorney in the Butts case is not pursuing a hate crime because of his race.

Champion told CNN that there is "no evidence at all" that Darby killed Butts out of hate, or as a hate crime. One reason a hate crime has been ruled out, Champion said, is that the teens in the car that morning could not see whether Johnny Butts was black or white.

But that is not true, according to the statements given by one of the teens in the car. In grand jury testimony obtained exclusively by CNN, Tony Hopper Jr., who was riding in the back seat, testified that he could see Johnny Butts was black before the teens hit him.

"Could you tell whether he was a black man or a white man before ya'll hit him?" Hopper was asked by the grand jury.

"Yes," Hopper said. "I could tell that he was black."

Hopper said the same thing on the day after the killing, when a sheriff's deputy asked him: "Did y'all know if he was black or white?"

Hopper answered: "I could tell he was a black man."

The 15-year-old passenger in the car, riding in the front seat, says in his statement he couldn't tell whether Butts was black or white. CNN's policy is not to identify juveniles in criminal cases.

In an interview that aired on local CNN affiliate ABC 24, Tony Hopper's mother said, shortly after the incident: "It was racist and two of those kids freaked out and couldn't do anything to get out of the car."

Hope Hopper has since said nothing else publicly about it. She did tell local media that after speaking out, she and her family received death threats. She has declined comment to CNN.

When asked about what Hope Hopper said to local media, Champion said:

"I understand what she said, and I don't know where she got that from. (She) never presented us with any kind of reason to say that it was. I don't have a single piece of evidence to tell me it was race related, including the testimony of the two young men who were in the car."

Champion says, particularly because of the earlier incident in Jackson, his team investigated the question of whether Butts was killed out of hate.

"Certainly it's one of the things we investigated when we began the initial part of this -- was this in fact a hate crime?" said Champion. "The investigators looked -- not only at the facts of the crime -- but at a possible motive. And during the course of the investigation we uncovered absolutely nothing that indicated this was a hate crime."

Champion said he does not know the motive in the case.

"I really don't have to prove motive, it's not one of the elements I have to prove. I think only the driver knows what the motive is. I certainly do not believe in this case it was race related, though," he said.

The district attorney declined to talk about any specifics of the case, and says he's barred by law from talking about the testimony and statements given by the teenagers in the car.

The sheriff's investigators, in interview transcripts obtained by CNN, don't ask the teens many questions about the motive for running over Johnny Butts.

Champion said the investigation has exhaustively looked at the background of Darby and found no racism. Champion says he called in the FBI, which he says agreed race was not a factor.

But the FBI suggested to CNN it isn't so sure. A spokesperson said: "The FBI absolutely considers this investigation to be still open."

Pastor Fred Butts is Johnny Butts' brother. He said his brother never had a negative thing to say about anyone, and he was a strong member of the local community. He taught Sunday school every weekend at his church. He exercised every day with his walk on the road. Fred Butts said he believes more was said in the car before the teens hit Butts, and he said he believes it was a hate crime.

"Actually, I think that those guys saw John walking. And I believe they said 'There goes a "N-word." And I believe that's what make that guy just go turn over there, and just ran over him on purpose. I don't believe that they was just ... I just can't believe no kind of way they could just be driving down the road and intentionally just cut over and hit somebody. On purpose," Fred Butts said.

"But he did do it on purpose. You know, you don't run over a dog on purpose. And this man, walking, exercising, they just cut -- and hit him, and uh you know I just can't see that."

Asked why he thought the driver have done that, Fred Butts said: "That's the question that the whole family wants to know. Why did you do it? And we don't have no answers. And it don't seem like nobody (is) trying to give us no answers. We want to know: Why did he do it?"

Fred Butts said he does not believe that the sheriff or the district attorney want to know the truth.

"They don't want to push that issue," he said, adding that he thinks they also don't want to investigate a hate crime.

"I actually believe that," he said.

Another disturbing fact CNN has uncovered in this case: Just minutes before the teens ran over Johnny Butts, two of them -- Darby and the 15-year-old -- vandalized a church, tearing it apart. Yet few questions about the possible motive for this were asked of any of the teens in any of the statements seen by CNN. There is very little asked about the victim's race, nothing asked about why they vandalized the church, and few questions asked about the description of Johnny Lee Butts. Law enforcement officials apparently have not pursued this at all in their investigation. In fact, the interrogations by Panola County Sheriff's investigators barely touch the surface of looking for a motive in the case.

There are also no questions asked about why three white teenagers from another county were driving in a rural and mostly African-American area in Panola County. And, none of the records CNN has obtained show Hope Hopper, the mother who said the crime was racially motivated, was ever even interviewed by authorities.

And there is still something else -- a disturbing incident that occurred not long after Johnny Lee Butts was killed and just around the corner: Four young African-American boys say they were walking on the shoulder of Smart Road when two white men in a white Jeep aimed straight for them, scaring them into the ditch. The boys say the men were laughing when they drove off the road, racing toward the boys, forcing them to jump way back.

Adult neighbors told CNN they watched the whole thing from their porch. The families told CNN they called the Sheriff's Office, and an officer came out and interviewed the boys and some of the adults.

CNN asked the Sheriff's Office for a copy of the incident report on what happened to these boys. Surprisingly, after repeatedly declining to be interviewed about the Butts case, Sheriff Dennis Darby -- no apparent relation to Whit Darby -- called CNN back about the report the families gave to the sheriff's deputy.

Sheriff Darby told CNN on the phone they had looked into the incident with the boys on the road and found nothing. "There's nothing to this report," he said, "it's all hearsay," and "he-said she-said." Sheriff Darby told CNN he would not give a copy of the report to the network. Then the sheriff warned CNN not to "stir up trouble in my county." He warned if the network pursued the story, "I'll be coming after you."

Whit Darby is scheduled for trial next month. Hopper and the juvenile have not been charged.

Donny Butts and his family think law enforcement officials should push harder for the truth in why his father was killed.

"If they pressured these guys, the truth would come out, but they are saying it wasn't racist," he said.

Asked if he thought his father's death was a "modern lynching," Donny Butts said: "Yes I do. What else could it have been? What they are saying is not true. I believe my daddy was lynched because of the color of his skin."

Video at the source.

When I first saw this headline on CNN, I thought it was an update on the 2011 case (original post on that here), but nope, it's a new case. I actually live in Mississippi and had not heard about this until yesterday. It's horrifying. The DA and sheriff are obviously trying to sweep this under the rug. I hope the Butts family receives justice.
tallycola 20th-Jan-2013 01:26 am (UTC)
This is horrifying. And the Sherriff sounds like a maniac.

Is it weird of me to think at least, thank goodness, the two other boys came clean? I can imagine in a similar situation them keeping silent for a lot longer if there were more kids in the car, or if only one of them wanted to come forward.
moonshaz 20th-Jan-2013 03:10 am (UTC)
I kind of had the same reaction myself. I mean, it seems like it would have been very easy for this thing to just slide right by under the radar if those two hadn't opened their mouths.

Small comfort, but AT LEAST this is coming to light. Even if he's not ultimately charged with a hate crime per se, it looks like the little asshole will face SOME consequences for his fuckery. Not the ideal outcome by any means, but it beats hell out of his getting off completely scot free.

Edited at 2013-01-20 03:13 am (UTC)
othellia 20th-Jan-2013 03:26 am (UTC)
No, I'm glad of that too at least. Obviously they should still be punished (they looked at a dead/dying man, got back in the car, and drove off), but it does take some moral fortitude to come forward and admit that their friend most likely hit Butts intentionally.

I do wonder as well though, what would've happened if there'd been a lot more kids in the car and pressure to stay silent.
sandstorm 20th-Jan-2013 01:30 am (UTC)
He warned if the network pursued the story, "I'll be coming after you."

*rolls eyes*

I'm glad the FBI is keeping the case open, and that they're involved in general.
silver_apples 20th-Jan-2013 04:15 pm (UTC)
I hope they got the threat on tape. It sounds like the sheriff should be investigated as well.
tabaqui 20th-Jan-2013 02:18 am (UTC)
For fuck's sake. Revolting. And that sheriff is a dangerous jackass.
wikilobbying 20th-Jan-2013 02:31 am (UTC)
passengers in the car say that not only did they see that butts was a black man, they thought their friend hit him on purpose

one of the passengers' mother even says it was an act of racism

and that's on top of what butts' family is saying

but sure, mr. district attorney, it's obviously got nothing to do with race and you're the only person who knows what they're talking about /eyeroll
mskye 20th-Jan-2013 07:51 am (UTC)
omfg @ all these fucks who think that race wasn't a factor.

Yes, TECHNICALLY, there is the possibility that this wasn't an act of racism. But it probably was. Anyone who goes out of their way to claim that they just can't fathom this being a hate crime is a fucking racist, end of story.
silver_apples 20th-Jan-2013 04:12 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I can believe it might not be a hate crime--maybe this monster wanted to kill and would have done the same thing if it had been a white man on the side of the road--but how is "he decided to kill someone because he was black" harder to fathom than "he decided to kill someone because he was there"? The first actually makes more sense, because at least there's a motive (a disgusting motive that's no justification for murder, but more of a motive than "just because").
corbyinoz 20th-Jan-2013 10:12 am (UTC)
I can't imagine what his family is going through. Honestly, if someone did that to my brother or husband or son, I can't imagine containing my desperation and rage and grief.

I feel so sad for this man, and his family. What a stupid, senseless, utterly fucking useless way to die.
ragnor144 20th-Jan-2013 01:49 pm (UTC)
I had the same reaction as the OP: Oh yeah, this case. It is coming to trial. Oh wait, this is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT INCIDENT. WTF is wrong with white people? I am white people and I understand it at an intellectual level, but really - how can someone do that?
silver_apples 20th-Jan-2013 04:29 pm (UTC)
I'd have an easier time believing this wasn't a hate crime if there was some attempt to find a motive. It's not like anyone is arguing self-defense, accident, or heat of the moment here. It was a deliberate, unprovoked killing of a stranger, and the authorities apparently have no interest in the motive beyond "not racism", and that seems to be based solely on the witness in the backseat not having gotten a good look and the killer not having been arrested for race-related crimes in the past.

Hate crime charge or no, I hope Darby spends the rest of his life in jail.
jettakd 20th-Jan-2013 05:29 pm (UTC)
Not only does the family of the victim think its racist, but the two guys who came forward thought it was racist and so did extended family members. If the kid is that blatantly racist, shouldn't that at least be taken into consideration?

But oh right, Mississippi.
roseofjuly 21st-Jan-2013 05:06 pm (UTC)
When I walk along or cross the road here, I'm sometimes afraid that someone sitting in a car is going to start their car and run me down, either because I'm black or because I'm a woman. Sometimes I think to myself that I'm being silly because I think these things, but after hearing so many stories of black people being run down by cars because they are black (and hearing similar stories of women getting run down, especially when they refuse advances from men) I know I'm not so silly for being scared of that.

No evidence of something doesn't mean it didn't happen. I mean, it's plausible that it wasn't a racist crime and that the little shit just wanted to run someone over to see what would happen - and he should go down. I also think it's just as likely that it wasn't consciously racially motivated. As in, the kid never said or thought "I'm running this guy down because he's an n-word," but that the driver would've never thought it would be cute or funny to run him over if he had been white. White people tend to conveniently forget (or refuse to believe) that most racism isn't overt KKK-type acts but insidious unconscious beliefs and attitudes that influence people's behaviors, in ways they sometimes don't even recognize themselves.
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