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‘Goon Squad’ leader and another deputy sentenced for torture of two Black men. Four other ex-officers still face sentencing

Two White former Mississippi law enforcement officers who were members of a self-styled “Goon Squad” were sentenced by a federal judge Tuesday to prison after admitting to torturing and abusing two Black men last year – and four other White ex-officers who pleaded guilty in the abuse will be sentenced later this week.

Hunter Elward, a 31-year-old former Mississippi sheriff’s deputy who faced the most serious of the federal charges for shooting one of the victims, was sentenced in federal court in Jackson to 20 years in prison in a highly emotional hearing Tuesday morning. Jeffrey Middleton, a 46-year-old former sheriff’s deputy whom federal prosecutors described as the ringleader of the group, was sentenced to more than 17 and a half years in prison Tuesday afternoon.

Elward and Middleton, along with fellow former Rankin County deputies Brett McAlpin, Christian Dedmon and Daniel Opdyke, as well as former Richland police officer Joshua Hartfield, pleaded guilty in August to federal charges of conspiracy against rights, deprivation of rights under color of law, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and obstruction of justice related to the incident.

Details from the January 24, 2023, incident in Braxton, just southeast of Jackson, eventually came to light after victims Michael Jenkins and Eddie Parker filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in June. They alleged the officers illegally entered the home of a woman whom Parker was helping to take care of; handcuffed, kicked, waterboarded and used Tasers on Jenkins and Parker; and attempted to sexually assault them over nearly two hours before Elward put a gun in Jenkins’ mouth and shot him. Many of the claims were later borne out by federal prosecutors in August as the six former officers pleaded guilty.

The six then-officers went to the home after a neighbor reported that several Black men were staying at a White woman’s home and reported seeing suspicious behavior – but in the end the officers found no crime, prosecutors said. At least three of them – Elward, Middleton and Opdyke – were part of a group of deputies that called themselves “The Goon Squad” because of their willingness to use excessive force and not report it, federal prosecutors said in court documents.

The Justice Department attorneys described how Middleton boasted about the group with Rankin County Sheriff’s Department emblems branded with the words “Goon Squad,” picturing a Confederate flag and a noose.

The courtroom Tuesday was packed during both proceedings with the victims’ loved ones and supporters, as well as civil rights activists. Elward, who was shackled with chains around his waist and wrists, was visibly emotional during the proceeding and nervously shaking his leg as federal prosecutors recounted what the two victims endured that night.

Middleton stared straight ahead and made no eye contact with the victims during his sentencing. He only became emotional as he made a statement before the judge imposed his sentence.

In addition to the other charges, Elward also pleaded guilty to discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence related to the January 2023 incident.

The two disgraced former officers were also ordered to pay $79,500 in restitution to the victims.

After both hearings ended, Jenkins said outside the courthouse: “It’s a long time coming. I’ve been through a lot and this is it, this is what I want to see.”

Southern District of Mississippi US District Court Judge Tom Lee overruled Middleton’s attorney’s arguments that Middleton played a minimal or minor role in the torture. The judge noted Middleton was supervising the officers that night and was “not a mere bystander or peripheral.”

The judge cited a statement submitted by Opdyke included in the defense’s pre-sentencing memorandums, in which that officer described his “downfall” as the day he was recruited into the Goon Squad by Middleton.

“Elward, like Opdyke, traced the brutality of the Goon Squad to you and McAlpin and the culture of violence you created and perpetuated,” Lee said, addressing Middleton directly.

Dedmon and Opdyke will be sentenced Wednesday and Hartfield and McAlpin on Thursday. Federal prosecutors are seeking the maximum sentences for the officers. McAlpin, Dedmon, Opdyke and Hartfield each face up to 20 years in prison.

In a statement after Elward and Middleton were sentenced on Tuesday, US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said: “These defendants kicked in the door of a home where two Black men were residing, handcuffed and arrested them without probable cause, called them racial slurs, and punched, kicked, tased, and assaulted them.”

“After one of the defendants fired his gun in the mouth of one of the victims, breaking his jaw, the defendants gathered outside to come up with a cover story as the victim lay bleeding on the floor,” the statement continued.

“The Justice Department will hold accountable officers who violate constitutional rights, and in so doing, betray the public trust.”

The six former officers also pleaded guilty to state charges against them stemming from the same January 2023 incident. Each of the officers were charged with conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, according to the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. They await sentencing on the state charges.

‘I hate myself,’ disgraced former cop says before sentencing

Moments before the judge imposed Elward’s sentence, Elward stood at a lectern alongside his attorney and said if he could go back in time, he would go back “to seven years ago, to the first time I saw this behavior.”

Michael Corey Jenkins shows the scar left from having a gun fired off in his mouth by one of the now former officers, while outside the federal courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, on Tuesday. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Michael Corey Jenkins shows the scar left from having a gun fired off in his mouth by one of the now former officers, while outside the federal courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, on Tuesday. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP

“I’m not a man of excuses. I fought hard with myself ever since that night. A lot of people are only mad when they get caught … I have to live every night with what I’ve seen and what I’ve done,” Elward said. At that point, he asked the judge if he could address the victims directly, and then turned to make eye contact with both men.

At that moment, Jenkins stopped chewing his gum and glared at Elward, which made the disgraced former deputy break eye contact and pause in his testimony.

Elward’s voice was shaking and he was wiping away tears as he addressed Jenkins, who is still learning how to speak again after the shooting. “Mr. Jenkins, I see you every day and every night. I’m so doggone sorry,” Elward said.

“I don’t want to get too personal with you, Michael,” he told him. “There’s no telling what you’ve seen. I’m so sorry that I caused that. I hate myself for it. I hate that I gave you that. I accept all responsibility.”

Jenkins nodded. Parker stood up and replied: “We forgive you, man.” Elward appeared taken aback by Parker’s forgiveness, as if he couldn’t believe it.

Following Elward’s testimony, his lawyer told the court his client was “not a hateful and mean person” before he became a deputy, but the egregious conduct he and his co-defendants committed was “condoned and guarded until it became the new norm.
In other words, it became institutional.”

Jenkins told CNN after the hearing that Elward’s apology “meant nothing” to him.

Middleton, during his own sentencing, told the court he accepted responsibility for what he did.

“I made some very poor, life-changing decisions. They were morally and legally wrong,” he said while apologizing to Jenkins, Parker and their families, as well as his family and the people of Rankin County, where he had been a deputy and was the supervisor the night of the incident.

In his victim’s impact statement, read by attorney Malik Shabazz, Parker said he didn’t think Middleton was sorry.

“I’m offended that Jeffrey Middleton is not apologetic, and is trying to make light of his role in these torture sessions, and crimes,” he said. “He used a sword to hit me.”

‘I fear I will be attacked again and even killed,’ victim says

The victim impact statements of Jenkins and Parker cited their battle with the trauma of the night.

Parker said the actions of the six former officers “severely impacted me and left a scar on me that will last forever.”

“I don’t know if I will ever be able to sleep at night. I fear I will be attacked again and even killed,” Parker’s statement said, as read by Shabazz. “The humiliation and embarrassment from the sexual assault is too great for me to talk about. Therefore, I am in therapy now and in the future.”

Shabazz also read a statement from Jenkins, who said, “I don’t think I’ll ever be the person I was.”

“I never thought a night hanging out with friends would almost cost me my life,” Jenkins’ statement said. “I’m hurt, I’m broken, I’m ashamed and embarrassed by the entire situation. They tried to take my manhood from me. They did some unimaginable things to me and the affects of it will forever linger in my life.”

Jenkins’ mother, Mary Jenkins, also gave a victim impact statement and addressed the judge directly.

“I want the same consideration for these people as they gave my son when they put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger,” she said. “Although my skin is Black, that doesn’t make me any less of a woman or any less of a mother.”

Elward’s parents, Edward Elward and Terrie Elward, also took the stand to testify before the judge imposed their son’s sentence.

“Nothing prepares a parent for this,” Edward Elward said. “What happened shouldn’t have happened. There are many more victims than the people in this room. Hunter is going to take and own what he did. I hope there is some mercy along the way, so he can get back to his family, get back to his three sons.”

The former officer’s mother was in tears and her voice was quivering as she addressed the court. “I couldn’t have been more proud of him when he said he was going to be a Rankin County sheriff’s deputy. And I’m still proud of him,” she said.

“The remorse Hunter has had for this is unbearable … Nothing would have told me he was a racist,” the mother said. At that point, there was audible laughter in the courtroom. As Terrie Elward walked away from the stand, she looked her son in the eyes, softy smiling and nodding at him gently.

After the hearing, the victims, their families and attorneys, as well as supporters, spoke outside of the courtroom.

“I picture my worst enemy. I couldn’t do this to nobody. I couldn’t stand to watch this being done to nobody. Anyone has to hold compassion and has the power to step up and do something about it,” Jenkins’ older brother, Eric Jholar, told CNN.

Edward Elward spoke to CNN outside of the courthouse following his son’s sentencing, saying the sheriff’s department should also be held accountable for the actions of the six officers. He said he believes the conduct runs deep in the agency.

“As soon as Hunter started seven years ago, the only way they could get overtime was to work with those guys,” the father told CNN. “The new recruits – the younger guys who are coming in and need overtime – that’s how they bring them in. That’s the only way you get overtime, is to work with the Goon guys.”

Eddie Terrell Parker, left, escorts Mary Jenkins, mother of Michael Corey Jenkins, into the Thad Cochran United States Courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, on Tuesday. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Eddie Terrell Parker, left, escorts Mary Jenkins, mother of Michael Corey Jenkins, into the Thad Cochran United States Courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, on Tuesday. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Ex-cops put the victims ‘through hell,’ FBI says

FBI Director Christopher Wray excoriated the six officers as he made comments at the University of Georgia hours after Elward was sentenced, saying the officers put the men through “hell” in an “atrocious” violation of their civil rights.

“No human being should ever be subjected to the torture, the trauma, the horrific acts of violence carried out by those individuals,” Wray said. “… It’s hard to imagine a more atrocious set of civil rights violations than those carried out by these guys.”

“Can you imagine the abject terror those two victims must have felt?” Wray asked. “I mean, who do you call when the police are the ones terrorizing you?”

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said the actions of the former officers will not be tolerated.

“It is my hope and prayer that we can help these victims on their healing journey, and we can restore confidence in our criminal justice system,” Fitch said in a statement.
“We look forward to sentencing in state court to achieve the fullest measure of justice.”

What we know about another victim’s case

New details are emerging about another disturbing case that several of the ex-officers have also pleaded guilty to.

Dedmon, Elward and Opdyke pleaded guilty in federal court to felonies related to a separate incident in December 2022, according to the Justice Department.

On Tuesday, Elward was sentenced for a federal charge of deprivation of rights under the color of law related to the December 2022 incident. The other two former officers are expected to be sentenced this week.

The three former deputies pleaded guilty to the incident involving a person only referred to as “A.S.” in court documents.

The victim was identified by federal prosecutors in court on Tuesday as Alan Schmidt, who previously told The New York Times the then-deputies pulled him over in December 2022 for an expired tag, only to accuse him of stealing tools.

Schmidt told the Times the “Goon Squad” members assaulted him, beat him and tased him. He said one deputy rubbed his genital and buttocks against his head.

The three ex-officers accused in Schmidt’s case – Christian Dedmon, Elward and Opdyke – have all pleaded guilty to deprivation of rights under color or law. They entered plea agreements last July.

Dedmon pleaded to two additional charges related to the incident, including discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence and a second count of deprivation of rights.

The deprivation of rights charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, according to court documents. The firearms charge carries a minimum 10-year sentence.

Court documents reviewed by CNN also say, “Dedmon discharged a firearm in close proximity to A.S. for the purpose of scaring and coercing a confession.”

A statement from Schmidt was read by federal prosecutors in court during sentencing hearings for the “Goon Squad.”

“I pray every day that I can forgive them. I know I’m not their only victim. It will take years to live a somewhat normal life,” the statement from Schmidt said.

As details describing the sexual assault Schmidt endured that night by Dedmon were read aloud in court, Elward was visibly uncomfortable, leaning back in his chair and whispering to his attorney.

“I thought the assault would go on forever. The harder I prayed, the harder I was beaten,” the statement said.

CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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