Cross burning evokes memories of past racial violence

Four teenagers in Haywood County were recently charged with burning a cross in the yard of a biracial classmate.

The act is considered a hate crime, a severe form of intimidation that is classified as a felony. All four students charged with the crime attend Tuscola High School.

The intended victim of the cross burning is a 14-year-old girl who was sleeping over at a friend’s house in the Crabtree area on a Friday night in early May. While teens are prone to grave lapses in judgment, carrying out the cross burning was not a fleeting endeavor. It took planning and follow-through, according to the investigation carried out by Detective James Marsh with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office.

“Basically, the four of them manufactured a homemade cross, wrapped it in a T-shirt soaked in gasoline and put it in the ground at a house where they knew the victim was staying that night,” Marsh said.

Marsh said it was the first cross burning he had encountered and realized immediately the gravity of the case he and fellow Detective Matthew Beck were about to take on.

“Given the historical connotations of cross burnings in decades past, when people would be murdered, it was a very high level of intimidation,” Marsh said. “It is really a crime against the whole community.”

Weeks passed, however, before charges were ultimately brought in late June.

“We were getting calls every day. People wanted us to move faster,” Marsh said.

Rather than immediately drawing up warrants and making arrests, however, the detectives took the results of their investigation to the district attorney’s office, and then on to the grand jury, which ultimately ruled on the slate of charges brought against the four teenagers.

“Not that we base our decisions on public opinion, but you are really between a rock and a hard place because some people would say you are persecuting these boys, and others would say you aren’t taking it as seriously as you should. So we put our head down and gathered as much information as we could and submitted it to the grand jury,” Marsh said. “We didn’t want it to be just us as individuals to make that decision.”

Cross burning landed in the crosshairs of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, when the court weighed in on whether cross burning in any setting was always a crime no matter what, or whether cross burning could hypothetically be a form of free speech and expression.

The court ultimately ruled that the mere act of burning a cross — such as in your own backyard when no one else is watching, or in your living room fireplace with all the shades drawn — is not in and of itself illegal.

But, cross burning with the intent to intimidate is.

That’s where Marsh and Beck’s investigation came in. They ultimately made the case for the felony charge of “placing a burning cross on the property of another or in a public place with intent to intimidate.” For good measure, the teenagers were also charged with the misdemeanor of “burning a cross on the property of another without permission” and a felony conspiracy charge to boot.

Those charged include: Ben Greene of White Oak, Brandon Kersey of Crabtree, and Matthew Mitchell of Fines Creek. The fourth student charged is a minor, so his name cannot be released.

A group called Changemakers for Racial Understanding, which has been meeting monthly in Haywood County for a year to discuss strategies for dismantling racism, has galvanized around the cross burning. A meeting of the group this Monday drew more than 30 people.

When the teens go to court and get sentenced for the crime, the group will advocate for a judge to sentence them with “restorative justice.”

“The idea is you are having them face the consequences of the crime. In this case, it is prejudice, and the idea would be to make them face up to what they did wrong, not picking up trash on the side of the road that has nothing to do with the crime,” explained Mary Elizabeth Staiger, one of the organizers of Changemakers for Racial Understanding.

Staiger would like to see the teens be required to come to the monthly meetings of the group.

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