A Mississippi man was sentenced to 36 months in prison Tuesday for burning a cross next to the home of an African American youth in order to intimidate residents of a predominantly black neighborhood of Keys Hill.
Graham Williamson, 38, pleaded guilty in August to charges of violating federal housing rights protections and starting a fire for the commission of a felony.
He faced a potential maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, although prosecutors submitted a sealed sentencing recommendation to the judge on Williamson’s behalf in exchange for the guilty plea. U.S. District Court Judge Keith Starrett handed down the three-year sentence on November 5.
Williamson and co-conspirator Louie Bernard Revette, who also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment, met in October 2017 at Revette’s home in Seminary, Mississippi, the larger area containing Keys Hill.
At Williamson’s plea hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Candace Mayberry revealed that Revette had stockpiled explosives including a propane can, fire cracker and multiple grenades inside his house.
That night in October, Williamson and Revette decided to construct a wooden cross and set it alight on Highway 535, between the residence of an African-American child and the Keys Hill area. The Justice Department says this was done to “threaten, frighten and intimidate” the black community and that Williamson understood cross-burning has historically been used to terrorize black families.
At the plea hearing on August 5, however, Williamson proffered another explanation for the commission of his crime. Williamson explained to U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Parker he felt burning the cross was a misunderstood effort to rescue the black family from having their house burned down entirely by Revette.
“When I went over to my boss’s house, he was planning on blowing the house up. I talked him down to just burning a cross in the yard,” Williamson claimed. “I felt like it was the right thing to do by burning the cross versus letting him blow the house up. I feel like I saved somebody’s life.”
Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who helms the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, lambasted Williamson’s conduct in a press release.
“The defendant invoked a terrifying symbol of racial violence to threaten and intimidate the victims for no other reason than their race and where they lived,” Dreiband said. “Hate crimes like this contravene our society’s well-established principles of equality and freedom from race-based intimidation, and the Department of Justice will continue to pursue and prosecute such crimes to the fullest extent of the law.”
Lawyers for Williamson and Revette did not respond to requests for comment.