The three men who attacked a gay Atlanta man while yelling gay slurs received a stiff prison sentence and a rebuke from a judge on Friday, despite efforts by their attorneys to invoke a gay panic defense and dismiss the attack as nothing more than a fight that turned into a sensational case over the victim’s sexual orientation.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford sentenced the men to 10 years in prison, with five years to serve, on each of the four felony counts they faced. The sentences will run concurrently. Bedford delivered the sentences during a lengthy lecture from the bench, calling the men bullies, questioning the sincerity of their apologies and warning them that it’s up to each of the men to change their lives.
“I don’t think you set out to overtly attack anyone in the gay community but I think it was a crime of opportunity,” Jackson said. “You all are the ultimate bullies and you bullied somebody and you hurt somebody and you hurt him because you didn’t like the way they looked, the way he conducted himself.”
Christopher Cain, Dorian Moragne and Dareal Demare Williams faced a maximum of 75 years in prison for their roles in the Feb. 4 attack on Brandon White. The men beat White and called him “faggot” during the incident outside a grocery store in southwest Atlanta. With the help of a fourth man, Javaris Bradford, they recorded the incident, posting it online and sparking national media attention.
Bradford has been indicted in the case but is eluding police capture.
‘The judge was fair’
White, who sat in court as Bedford sentenced the men, said he’s pleased with the outcome. (Listen to his reaction in the video above.)
“I am actually feeling pretty good,” White said. “The judge was very fair. I’ve always said that I didn’t want to make any decision on what time anyone should get. I thought the judge would be very fair and he was. He was very fair in this case.”
During two days of testimony, all three men offered apologies to White. Family members also testified on their behalf. But White said the apologies from Cain, Moragne and Williams rang hollow with him.
“I don’t really believe they were sincere,” White said. “If you are going to apologize it has to come from your gut, your heart and your mind. It doesn’t come from a piece of paper.”
White has called his attackers “monsters.”
Throughout the hearing, Cain’s attorney Kenya Herring tried to portray White as the aggressor who was “wearing tight pants” and told Cain that he would “fuck your gay ass.” That prompted Cain to “assert his own manhood,” she said. Cain attacked White from behind and struck the first blow in the mid-day attack.
That gay panic defense angered White.
“When that first happened, it made me mad but then you know as you get to thinking, that is the first defense that a person is going to come to,” White said. “If I provoked you, why would you plead guilty.”
‘This was a beating’
Assistant District Attorney Gabe Banks took exception to charges from attorneys for the three men that his sentencing recommendation – 15-year sentences with Moragne to serve 10 and Cain and Williams to serve 8 – was motivated by LGBT groups and widespread media attention that the case has attracted.
Blair Shores, an attorney for Williams, called the incident a “sensational case” and the proposed sentence “not the kind of recommendation they make when the media is not involved.” Herring said the media attention prompted prosecutors to “unleash its big guns” during the trial.
But Banks called the attack a hate crime and said it could have ended in White’s death.
“This crime occurred out in the open, in broad daylight – open and notorious, not hiding it from anybody, not doing any attempt to hide their conduct,” Banks said. “This was not a fight. This was a beating. It was an attack. This was deliberate, it was intentional, it was thought out.”
State lawmakers speak out
The sentencing hearing included some unusual twists. On Thursday, state Rep. Ralph Long testified on behalf of Moragne and Williams, urging Bedford to “be lenient in regards” to sentencing and adding that “10 years is a very long time.” Hours later, Long contradicted that testimony with a Facebook post portraying his court appearance as supporting White and a five-year prison sentence for his attackers. (Read the post below.)
But Long wasn’t the only state lawmaker to give conflicting statements on the case. His opponent in the July 31 primary, state Rep. Simone Bell, was one of nearly two-dozen LGBT activists and community organizers to petition Bedford in a letter to sentence the three men to probation or community service. All three men were on probation or serving first-offender sentences when they attacked White in February.
Late Thursday, after the July 11 letter became a key topic in the sentencing hearing, Bell issued a statement asking Fulton prosecutors to drop their case to make way for a federal criminal case. (Read the letter below.)
Bell and Long are campaigning for the House District 58 seat, which now includes a portion of the Pittsburgh neighborhood in southwest Atlanta where the attack took place.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI have been involved in the case, but have yet to say if they will charge the men under the federal hate crimes law.