The Fulton County District Attorney’s office asked for 15 years for all men with Moragne to serve 10 and Cain and Williams to serve eight. The men all pleaded guilty to the brutal beating of Brandon White, 20, as he exited a convenience store in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh community.
“You all are the ultimate bullies,” Bedford told the young men before handing down the sentence.
“You didn’t like the way [Brandon White] looked, dressed or conducted himself and that’s nothing but being bullies. I don’t think you set out overtly to attack anyone in the gay community. I think this was based on a peer dynamic situation,” Bedford said.
Bedford stressed to the defendants that it is up to them to change their lives.
“I have a saying I use, ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me,’” he said. “Your lawyer, your mother, your aunt, your probation officer, or prison are not going to make a life change for you. If you don’t get it, you will go to prison and come out a hardened criminal. It’s up to you to change your lives and all three of you have abilities.”
Defendants apologize, but judge, victim not impressed
The three men, dressed in blue jail jumpsuits and shackled at their waists and wrists, read aloud apologies to White as White sat in the courtroom. They said they took responsibility for their actions and all also acknowledged they did not know Brandon White before the beating as others, including some in the LGBT community, have suggested.
Bedford admitted he was not impressed with the apologies.
“With respect to the professions of regret and sorrow — I don’t like to be cynical, but it seems me that everyone going to jail experiences remorse. It’s like crocodile remorse,” Bedford said. “I don’t put a whole lot of stock into it for me … your true remorse remains to be seen.”
Bedford acknowledged “prison is not a very good alternative” but there must be accountability from those who attacked White.
“Prisons create more problems than remedies, but that’s a decision of the legislature and not the court. This court believes in accountability and responsibility,” he said.
“If nobody holds you accountable you keep doing what you’re doing, which is what you guys have done.”
In addition to the prison term, the defendants were sentenced to 96 hours of community service and intense probation once released, which could be as soon as four years.
The probation includes earning their GEDs, attending Men Stopping Violence and other anger management programs, job skills training, staying away from alcohol and drugs, and no gang affiliations.
LGBT activists seek probation for defendants
White said he was never wanted to try to influence the sentence and left that decision up to the judge. He said believed the sentence was fair.
When asked about LGBT activists who signed a letter seeking the men be put on probation or receive community service rather than being sentenced to a lengthy prison term, White said he was angered that they never approached him to ask about what he thought.
“I was very surprised and the reason being I actually didn’t find out about the letter until a couple days ago it had already been sent out to the judge, it had already been sent out to the DA’s office,” he said.
“And then when it had my name in it, I’m like where did these people come from? Why would you say you are advocating for me when at the end of the day you are on the other side,” he said.
White said he was never contacted by the activists. Greg Smith, a representative for White, said he received one email asking to speak to White but no specifics were given.
Prosecutor Gabe Banks said after the hearing he still believes the beating was a hate crime because of the slurs used in the attack and added the FBI and U.S. Attorneys Office are still investigating the crime.
State Rep. Ralph Long testified on behalf of the defendants and was questioned by defense attorney Jay Abt, who represented Moragne.
Long said he believed a 10-year sentence was too long but declined to recommend a sentence himself.
“It hurts to lose the lives of four young men. There is little offering to our young men out there [in Pittsburgh community]. But they have disrespected themselves, the individual, the state of Georgia. I would like to see them do some time, but 10 years is too long,” he said. “I would like the court to be lenient but I want them to know the inside of a cell.”
Letter signers hope for future dialogue
Xochitl Bervera worked with the defendants and signed onto a letter by more than 20 LGBT activists — including State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta), Long’s opponent in the July 13 primary — asking the court to give the young men receive probation rather than a prison term.
Bervera said after the hearing that the community must find a better way to stop the cycle of violence than looking to the prison system.
“I think what’s really important now is that the community move forward and find ways to talk about how we keep our community safe and end violence in a way that doesn’t engage state systems that cage people and target our community,” she said.
It was important to advocate for this strategy using the Brandon White case because homophobia is not eliminated by sentencing people to prison, she said.
“In this case there was a lot at stake. As a community we need to start asking the question of how to stop the cycle of violence, how do we end hate-based violence and homophobia. And it’s not the prison system,” she said.
Bell issued a statement after the letter was made public, saying she wished the charges would be moved to federal court and the defendants face sentencing under the federal hate crime law.
“I view the attack on Mr. White as a crime centered in hate due his sexual orientation, whether perceived or real, at the time of the attack. I would like to see the federal hate crimes case move forward. I believe doing so would create a precedent, and move forward hate crimes legislation in Georgia that I have signed in the state legislature. It is a protection we desperately need.
“As it stands, the perpetrators would be convicted under Georgia’s criminal code, not as a hate crime — Georgia does not have a Hate Crimes law, and their exposure could be an enormously long sentence with no system of rehabilitation for their acts, only imprisonment,” she said.
Top photo: Christopher Cain, Darael Demare Williams and Dorian Moragne were sentenced to serve five years in prison for the brutal attack on White, a gay man. (Photos via Fulton County Sheriff’s Office)