By MICHAEL GOLDBERG and EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS (Associated Press)
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Six former Mississippi police officers, including some calling themselves “The Goon Squad,” pleaded guilty Thursday to a racist assault on two Black men that ended with an officer shooting one man in the mouth.
The officers, who are all white, entered a house without a warrant on Jan. 24, assaulting the men with a sex toy and using stun guns and other objects to abuse them over a roughly 90-minute period, court documents show. After one victim was shot and wounded in a “mock execution” that went awry, documents say the officers conspired to plant and tamper with evidence instead of providing medical aid.
The Justice Department launched its civil rights probe in February. The Mississippi attorney general’s office announced Thursday it had filed state charges against the six former officers, including assault, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Five former Rankin County Sheriff’s Department employees pleaded guilty, including Christian Dedmon, Hunter Elward, Brett McAlpin, Jeffrey Middleton and Daniel Opdyke. Joshua Hartfield, a former Richland police officer who was off duty when he participated in the raid, also pleaded guilty.
Dedmon, Elward and Opdyke also pleaded guilty to three federal felony offenses for a separate incident on Dec. 4. Prosecutors said Dedmon beat a white man, used a Taser on him and fired a gun near his head to coerce a confession, while Elward and Opdyke failed to intervene.
“The defendants in this case tortured and inflicted unspeakable harm on their victims,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said, adding they “egregiously violated the civil rights of citizens who they were supposed to protect.”
The civil rights charges come after an investigation by The Associated Press linked the deputies to at least four violent encounters with Black men since 2019 that left two dead and another with lasting injuries.
U.S. law enforcement brutality has come under increased scrutiny following the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the January beating death of Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee.
Kristen Clarke, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the Mississippi officers “caused harm to the entire community who feel that they can’t trust the police officers who are supposed to serve them.”
Court documents say the officers took on the Goon Squad nickname “because of their willingness to use excessive force and not to report it.”
The victims, Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Rankin County in June seeking $400 million in damages. The victims are identified in documents only by their initials, but Jenkins and Parker have discussed the episode publicly.
The former officers, shackled at their wrists and feet, walked into the courthouse with family members and federal marshals took all six into custody. The defense attorneys did not comment on their clients’ behavior during the court appearance.
“They became the criminals they swore to protect us from,” U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca said. “Now, they’ll be treated as the criminals as they are.”
U.S. District Judge Tom Lee said the men will be sentenced in mid-November. Dedmon and Elward each face a maximum sentence of 120 years plus life in prison and $2.75 million in fines. Hartfield faces a possible sentence of 80 years and $1.5 million, McAlpin faces 90 years and $1.75 million, Middleton faces 80 years and $1.5 million, and Opdyke could be sentenced to 100 years with a $2 million fine.
The men are scheduled to plead guilty to the state charges on Aug. 14, said Mary-Helen Wall, a deputy state attorney general.
The officers initially went to the home in Braxton because a white neighbor complained Black people were staying with a white woman who owned the house. The documents say Parker was a longtime friend of the homeowner and was helping care for her.
Officers used racist slurs against the two men during the raid and “warned them to stay out of Rankin County and go back to Jackson or ‘their side’ of the Pearl River — areas with higher concentrations of Black residents,” the documents say.
Elward shoved a gun into Jenkins’ mouth and fired, court documents say. The bullet lacerated Jenkins’ tongue and broke his jaw before exiting his neck.
Before the raid, the officers agreed to enter without a warrant if they could avoid being spotted by the home’s security cameras. They also planned to use excessive force but not to cause visible injuries to the men’s faces so there would be “no bad mugshots,” the documents say.
The deputies threw eggs on the handcuffed victims and forced them to lie on their backs while pouring milk, alcohol and chocolate syrup down their mouths. They forced the men to strip naked and shower to remove the evidence.
The officers also repeatedly electrocuted the victims with stun guns to compare whether the sheriff’s department or police department weapons were more powerful. One deputy, Middleton, offered to plant an unregistered firearm at the scene.
Court documents identified Opdyke and Dedmon as the suspects who assaulted the two men with the sex toy.
Despite recurring instances of police corruption and brutality, most officers are doing their jobs properly, said Keith Taylor, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York City police officer.
“In this situation, you have, of course, racism and just the inhumanity that exhibited itself in officers’ behavior,” Taylor said.
Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey announced on June 27 that five deputies involved in the episode had been fired or resigned. Hartfield was later revealed to be the sixth officer and also was fired.
Bailey on Thursday said he first learned everything that happened to Jenkins and Parker when he read unsealed court documents.
“This is the most horrible incident of police brutality I’ve learned of over my whole career, and I’m ashamed it happened at this department,” Bailey said.
Malik Shabazz, an attorney representing Jenkins and Parker, thanked the Justice Department in a statement Thursday from Black Lawyers for Justice.
“These guilty pleas are historic for justice against rogue police torture in Rankin County and all over America,” Shabazz said. “Today is truly historic for Mississippi and for civil and human rights in America.”
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.