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The ‘Goon Squad’ case yielded stiff federal sentences. Still, some Black Mississippians wonder how much has really changed

On the eve of the final two federal sentencing hearings last month in the case of a pair of Black men tortured by six White law enforcement officers, a cousin of Emmett Till’s mother thought of her own son.

“I haven’t talked to him today, and that’s unusual,” Priscilla Williams Till said of her 19-year-old, Emmett Louis Till Williams – named, she said, for the boy whose 1955 lynching just a few hours’ drive from here remains a shocking touchstone of the nation’s civil rights movement.

The mother made the sudden realization while discussing the events that defined the third week of March here: the series of hearings – two a day – in which the now-former officers, who pleaded guilty to a combined 13 federal felonies tied to the abuse of Michael Jenkins and Eddie Parker, were sentenced at a Jackson courthouse to 10 to 40 years each in prison.

Till picked up her phone and dialed her “baby.”

He didn’t pick up.

Till got tense. She starting chatting again, then paused. And then she was reabsorbed in her phone, all while sitting at a table in Johnny T’s, a popular Black-owned bistro and blues club in the Farish Street district, where Black wealth reigned before integration took hold in the ‘70s.

She called a friend.

“Has Emmett been there today?” Till asked. “He went to work?”

Priscilla Williams Till attends a news conference March 20 outside the federal courthouse in Jackson. - Emma Tucker/CNN
Priscilla Williams Till attends a news conference March 20 outside the federal courthouse in Jackson. - Emma Tucker/CNN

She phoned her teenager again. Finally, he picked up. He was at work. He was fine. Safe.

The mother’s momentary fear something bad had happened to her child eased. But its underpinnings would not subside, certainly not as her mind swirled with the sickening details pouring out in the final phase of the federal case of the self-styled “Goon Squad,” whose members and others illegally went last January into the home of a woman Parker had been caring for, a federal lawsuit states.

There, the then-officers handcuffed, kicked, waterboarded, tased and sexually assaulted Parker and Jenkins over nearly two hours before one put a gun in Jenkins’ mouth and pulled the trigger in a mock execution, the lawsuit and court records say. The officers, “in their repeated use of racial slurs in the course of their violent acts, were oppressive and hateful against their African-American victims,” the suit adds.

Those racist expressions, Till said, reflect “the values, the customs, the physical objects, that are passed down from generation to generation. This is passed down to children.

“And look at these children in the courtrooms,” she said, “look at their suffering.”

Beyond the courthouse, the federal “Goon Squad” sentencings – weeks ahead of state court sentencings Wednesday in the same case – also set the stage for people across majority-Black greater Jackson to confront the whole episode’s excruciating truths: from vestiges of slavery to the survivors’ haunting trauma, perpetrators’ often-agonized courtroom apologies and the grave question of how to push toward a more just future.

The tendrils, indeed, extend into a nation grappling with how police use force, especially against people of color and notably after the 2020 murder of Black father George Floyd by a White Minneapolis officer whose federal sentence was shorter than a few doled out in March in Jackson.

Michael Jenkins on March 19 shows the scar left from having a gun fired off in his mouth during the January 2023 torture session. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Michael Jenkins on March 19 shows the scar left from having a gun fired off in his mouth during the January 2023 torture session. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP

The facts of Jenkins’ and Parker’s “pure hell,” as the FBI director described it, gripped the courtroom here – its packed gallery guarded by US Marshals – as the two survivors day after day last month came face-to-face with their tormentors, one-time Rankin County Sheriff’s deputies and a Richland Police officer.

Parker, wearing a chain with an open-handcuffs pendant, sat with Jenkins, who is still relearning to speak, alongside attorneys Malik Shabazz and Trent Walker and surrounded by their friends and relatives.

Each day, Jenkins and Parker closed their eyes as prosecutors and defense attorneys recounted their torture session, initiated that night by a complaint one of the then-deputies got from his White neighbor of suspicious behavior and several Black men staying at a White woman’s home, federal prosecutors said – a stunning echo of the mid-century claim against Emmett Till.

Across a week of hearings, Shabazz read aloud from statements Jenkins and Parker had prepared to ensure the court record – and the veteran federal judge’s decrees – might reflect their experiences. In the end, Parker at three of the hearings spoke on his own behalf.

An anti-police brutality activist looks back in July 2023 at the entrance to the Rankin County Sheriff's Office in Brandon, Mississippi. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP
An anti-police brutality activist looks back in July 2023 at the entrance to the Rankin County Sheriff's Office in Brandon, Mississippi. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP

“That night, I saw the devil come to me,” the survivor said as he wiped away tears. “I saw the devil in my face, in my home, where I was supposed to be safe.

“What did I do to get this? Nothing.”

Tears also flowed from some defendants who – in navy jumpsuits and shackled at their waists and wrists – spoke directly to Jenkins and Parker, though the sincerity of their contrition sometimes met with doubt or pity.

Jackson resident: Shocked but not surprised

Former Lieutenant Jeffrey Middleton – who’d touted the “Goon Squad” with sheriff’s office emblems branded with its moniker, a Confederate flag and a noose, federal prosecutors said – said he accepted responsibility for what he’d done.

But Parker didn’t think Middleton was sorry, he said, according to the statement Shabazz read on his behalf: “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 used a sword to hit me.”

Former Deputy Hunter Elward cried and looked directly at the survivors, saying: “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.”

Then, Parker stood up and offered a stunning – if not unthinkable – response: “We forgive you, man.”

This combination of photos shows, from top left, former Rankin County Sheriff's deputies Hunter Elward, Christian Dedmon, Brett McAlpin, Jeffrey Middleton, Daniel Opdyke and former Richland Police officer Joshua Hartfield in August 2023 at the Rankin County Circuit Court in Brandon. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP
This combination of photos shows, from top left, former Rankin County Sheriff's deputies Hunter Elward, Christian Dedmon, Brett McAlpin, Jeffrey Middleton, Daniel Opdyke and former Richland Police officer Joshua Hartfield in August 2023 at the Rankin County Circuit Court in Brandon. - Rogelio V. Solis/AP

After the hearing, though, Jenkins told CNN the apology from Elward, who’d shot him in the mouth, “meant nothing” to him.

Ex-Deputy Daniel Opdyke told Parker through tears: “Nothing I say can undo the harm that I caused you. … I deeply regret all the pain and suffering I’ve caused you.”

But Parker, looking stern as tears streamed down his cheeks, walked out of the courtroom with his aunt.

Crying then in court, too, was Priscilla Till, who runs the Emmett Till Justice for Families Foundation, which aims to dismantle systems of racial injustice. She later noted Opdyke, at 28, was the youngest of those sentenced.

“He’s a child,” she said. “And I’m not saying he’s not guilty. But a child with that much hate who became this man with all this control, misusing it, and now he’s regressed to thinking how he’s messed up and knows he’s going to suffer, I felt his pain.”

Jackson resident Shinese Hinkle, 34, followed news of the federal sentencings from the hotel where she works across from the courthouse. She found herself considering the extent to which law enforcement officers in her state can abuse their official power.

“It just made me wonder: How many times did something like that occur before they went to such extreme measures, be caught and be held accountable?” said Hinkle, a server at a restaurant in the hotel where Jenkins, Parker, their attorneys and supporters stayed this week.

Hinkle was “shocked” when she first heard last year the grotesque details of what the officers had done to Parker and Jenkins, she said.

But she wasn’t surprised.

Shinese Hinkle works March 20 at a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. - Emma Tucker/CNN
Shinese Hinkle works March 20 at a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. - Emma Tucker/CNN

“As a Black person here,” she said, “it made me feel as if those who are supposed to serve and protect us would rather target and criminalize us, instead of treating us like normal people.”

‘This is not 1964, it’s 2024’

Before the first federal sentence was handed down last month, the Rankin County NAACP branch had pushed the court in writing to enact harsh punishments in the “Goon Squad” case. Severe consequences, the civil rights group’s president suggested, could steer progress toward justice.

“We can’t erase Mississippi’s past,” Angela English told CNN ahead of the first sentencing. “But we can move forward today and set a precedent that has never been set before.”

“This is not 1964,” she added, “it’s 2024.”

Then after U S District Court Judge Tom Lee imposed the stiffest sentence on an ex-investigator he said had committed the most “shocking, brutal and cruel acts imaginable,” Jenkins’ father offered his gratitude and called the punishment “something unheard of” in the state.

“I’ve lived in Mississippi 68 years,” Melvin Jenkins, “and I’ve never seen justice like this.”

And following the final sentencing on March 21, US Attorney General Merrick Garland affirmed just how extreme the torture and abuse of the Black men had been: “The depravity of the crimes committed by these defendants cannot be overstated,” he said in a statement.

And the fallout may not be over.

The local NAACP chapter has called for a pattern-or-practice investigation of policing in Rankin County. The US Justice Department continues to ask the public to share information about allegations of abuse by its sheriff’s office via a toll-free number. And some here are working to oust the sheriff himself, who apologized and said he was “ashamed” after his deputies pleaded guilty in the torture ordeal.

Still, less than an hour after the last of the six “Goon Squad” case officers was sentenced in federal court, English and her NAACP colleague Will Sims – both among the first Black children to integrate local schools around 1970, they said – visited the lofty Confederate monument in the heart of Rankin County’s seat of Brandon.

Will Sims, left, and Angela English stand March 21 in front of a Confederate monument in Brandon. - Emma Tucker/CNN
Will Sims, left, and Angela English stand March 21 in front of a Confederate monument in Brandon. - Emma Tucker/CNN

Sims pointed to the words engraved on the 1907 structure – topped by a statue of a Confederate soldier – which he said he first read while on a fourth-grade field trip: “Men die, principles live forever.”

“For some reason, that always stuck in my heart,” Sims said. “It meant for me, there’s a certain lifestyle, and you have to know your place in this society, in this time. It will never change.”

For English, the monument is a reminder of her family’s deep pain: Her great uncle, Willie McLin – who went by Will Mack – was left hanging from it in 1909 after a White woman accused him of assault, she said.

“This statue represents death,” English said. “It represents evil.”

Moments after she took a seat on the stone platform, a car of White teens drove by, and someone yelled: “You can’t sit there!”

English scoffed. Then she looked at Sims.

“They don’t want us here,” she said, smiling.

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