Otis Brooks, a neighbor and friend of Butts, has told authorities he saw and greeted Butts that morning as he passed his front door on his sojourn wearing a colorful blue T-shirt. Brooks adds he remembers his friend’s skin tone was particularly visible that morning and “you could see his arms.”
Even Hopper has admitted to a grand jury, “I could tell that he was black” and his mother previously told CNN she felt “it was racist and two of those kids freaked out and couldn’t do anything to get out of the car.”
Hope Hopper has not since spoken publicly amid reports she and her family are now receiving death threats. The case holds eerie similarities to the June 2011 slaying of fellow Mississippi native James Craig Anderson.
Anderson, 47, was killed in nearby Jackson, some 150 miles or so outside of Panola County, after being unmercifully beaten and run over by a group of seven white teens. Driver Deryl Dedmon, who led the pack by imploring “let’s go f*** with some niggers,” eventually pled guilty along with all the others, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
“At this point, we are just trying to make sure there is a full investigation of the incident,” local NAACP president Derrick Johnson said of the Butts’ case.
All throughout this largely, still segregated stretch of Mississippi, confederate flags still fly high and adorn home fronts as blighted illustrations of pride and prejudice.
“Actually, I think that those guys saw John walking and I believe they said ‘There goes a N-word,” Pastor Fred Butts said of his brother. “And I believe that’s what makes that guy just go turn over there, and just ran him over on purpose. He did do it on purpose. You know, you don’t run over a dog on purpose.”
Later that day, Hopper and the juvenile passenger turned themselves in to police, even predicting to authorities that Darby would claim to have struck a deer when investigators moved to inspect his vehicle. Darby even denied drinking and smoking earlier that evening, even though he has also since been charged with burglarizing an area church that same night.
Darby is now being held on $300,000 bond, though he has yet to formally enter a plea. The FBI has also moved in to probe the case, though they now find themselves at stark odds with Champion over the status of the investigation.
In defending his decision thus far not to charge Darby with a hate crime, Champion recently contended the FBI was in agreement with his assessment. Yet, FBI officials recently told CNN the agency “absolutely considers the investigation to be still open.”
Darby is scheduled for trial next month, where a conviction on murder could mean a life sentence. A conviction under Mississippi’s hate crime laws could spell even more enhanced penalties. Hopper and the juvenile in question have yet to be officially charged.
“Yes, I do,” Donny Butts answered when asked if he felt his father’s killing equaled that of a modern day lynching. “What else could it have been? I believe my daddy was lynched because [of] the color of his skin.”
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.