Civil rights activists in Mississippi on Tuesday demanded that the brazen, cold-hearted hit-and-run killing of a 61-year-old Sunday school teacher be investigated under the theory that race may have been an overriding factor.
Johnny Lee Butts, 61, was struck from behind by a runaway vehicle and dragged more than 170 feet to his death last July as he strolled along a rural road during his daily four-mile walk near his dirt-patch home.
As his limp body came to rest, Butts’ head violently struck the windshield, caving in the entire glass casing, severing one of his legs and bending the steering wheel column with such force it virtually knocked a part of the apparatus well past the front driver’s seat.
Despite all the pending mayhem, then 17-year-old driver Matthew Whitten “Whit” Darby never slowed down as he approached the defenseless victim, according to witnesses, perplexing many all the more as to why the state’s district attorney would still be reluctant in deeming the crime as racially motivated.
Even the two teens traveling with Darby at the time of the crash, now 18-year-old Tony Hopper Jr., and a still unnamed 15-year-old juvenile, have since told police they warned Darby to slow down as they neared the victim but he continued to unnervingly barrel forward.
“We see a walker on the side of the road.” CNN reported one of the teens, who now admits to drinking vodka and smoking marijuana most of the night. “And I pointed out to say, ‘watch out there is a walker there.’ Whit slightly turns the steering wheel…before we knew it he ran him straight over.”
“I believe he hit him on purpose,” Hopper later told investigators. “He never hit the brakes.”
In addition, four young black teens have told police just before the deadly accident they were traveling on a nearby road when a white jeep fitting the description of the one which killed Butts veered toward them. They only escaped injury by jumping into a highway ditch. The boys added the men were laughing as they raced away. Several witnesses have stepped forward to corroborate their story, with some even insisting they even called the sheriff’s office that very morning to report just what they had observed.
None of the fact –finding mission seems to serve as much of any consolation to Donny Butts. Seven-months after his father’s death, Donny, his only son, still finds himself retracing his father’s steps that morning, desperate to make sense of the unimaginable.
“They knew he was black,” he said. “And that’s the only reason they ran him over because he was black. If it wasn’t racist, I want to know what is was… point blank.”
For some, however, the motivations of DA John Champion remain somewhat unclear. Despite all the mounting evidence, Champion is on record in insisting he still doubts the incident was motivated by race.
“I really don’t have to prove motive. It’s not one of the elements I have to prove,” he told CNN. “I think only the driver knows what the motive is. I certainly do not believe this case was race related. There is no evidence at all that Darby killed Butts out of hate.”
One reason Champion has ruled out filing hate crime charges is he contends the teens in the car could not even see if Butts was black. Rather conveniently, he suffers from a bout of amnesia when confronted with the testimony of several witnesses from that morning.
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.