Rehabilitated?

James Laster says he wants to make amends to those he hurt

prison

 

DAVID TAFFET  |  Senior Staff Writer

“It took 45 seconds to throw away eight years of my life,” 36-year-old James Laster said, speaking through a glass partition in the visitor’s building at the Ramsey Unit prison in Rosharon. Laster is serving an eight-year sentence at the Texas prison unit south of Houston after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the 2011 gay-bashing attack on Burke Burnett in Reno, Texas, just outside Paris.

Laster said he keeps himself busy in jail. He gets up at 4:30 in the morning and does 300-400 pushups. After breakfast, he works as a teacher’s aide in cabinetmakers class.
“I’m good at it,” he said.

LasterHe said he enjoys showing others who’ve never touched a skill saw or a drill how to use them to build furniture. He called his job therapeutic.

Later in the day Laster said he works on his associate’s degree. He’s taking four classes this semester — government, history, geology and English. After dinner he spends time out in the rec yard, reads, does homework and writes. He has a TV in his cell, but said he rarely has time to watch it.

Laster was charged with three counts of aggravated assault after the October 2011 attack. He pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (his hands and feet).

Burnett said everyone at the party they were attending that night was drunk. He said that when a fight broke out, several people — including Laster — attacked him, leaving him with cuts on his face, neck and arms from a broken bottle, contusions and burns resulting from when he was thrown or fell on a burning 55-barrel drum used to heat the barn.

Laster takes exception to some of the claims, saying Burnett wasn’t thrown onto a bonfire, as some news outlets reported, but fell on the burning drum, and that at least some of what police called stab wounds were from Burnett falling on his own broken beer bottle.

But Laster willingly takes responsibility for his part in the attack on Burnett, acknowledging that as he hit and kicked Burnett, he also called him “faggot,” which led to hate crime charges being leveled.

Another attacker, Micky Joe Smith, who was 25 at the time, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Charges were dropped against a third man, Daniel Martin, after Laster told police Martin had already left the party when the fight broke out. Burnett said he remembers more than two people attacking him, but no one else was charged.

Laster wrote to Dallas Voice in January. In his letter, he said he wanted to make amends to the LGBT community. We get letters from inmates all the time, but there was something introspective and interesting about Laster’s missing. Not only was his contact with us timely, coming as it did within months of a rash of attacks on gay men in

Oak Lawn last fall, he also seemed to be taking responsibility for his actions. So I arranged a visit with him through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The prison wasn’t easy to find. Google maps sent me to the wrong place — or more accurately, the map stops about four miles short of the prison’s location. But I was able to find someone who gave me accurate directions.

Laster was a little rattled as he came into the meeting room and sat behind a partition of glass and metal mesh. A guard had gotten him out of his class and brought him to the warden’s office before escorting him to our meeting. He said he’s trying to stay out of trouble, so a trip to the warden’s office can be quite upsetting.

As a result, we were both a little anxious as we began to chat and started by just introducing ourselves to each other.

“I love to write,” he told me. “If I’m frustrated, I can get a pen and paper out. Sometimes I write five pages.”

In part, he said, his writing is what got him to Ramsey Unit. He began taking classes before being moved to the South Texas location. Ramsey Unit is the only prison in the Texas penal system that not only allows a student to get an associate’s degree, but lets them advance their education to earn bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees.

Several hundred inmates at the unit are taking classes, Laster said. After he’s released, he’ll be responsible for reimbursing the state for his tuition.

Laster insists he’s not the same person he was when he entered prison. Burnett, reading Laster’s first letter, agreed, saying he didn’t recognize him from before, either.

“For the first two years, they punished me,” Laster said about his current sentence. “Now, I choose to try to do something productive and become a better person.”

He was first incarcerated in a prison near Palestine, where he described the treatment of gays and child molesters and said, “You see how they’re treated. You see the mentality. It begins to mold you.” Then, he said, he decided he was going to act like the kind of person he wanted to be treated as, and his behavior paid off.

Burke

James Laster, above, sits behind a glass partition during the interview for this article. Burke Burnett, here, seen just after he was attacked.

Laster said he’s thankful to be at Ramsey, where fighting isn’t tolerated. He said prisoners who are repeatedly caught in fights find themselves on a bus for another unit.

How did he get here?
When Laster was 15, his mother died. He had no relationship with his father, at the time, and no place to go. Child Protective Services had no options for him.

So some friends took him in and that’s when he got involved in dealing drugs. Within a few months, Laster was arrested for possession with intent to distribute and put into the juvenile detention system, where he was housed with violent prisoners.

“There should be some alternative for non-violent crimes,” Laster said of his first incarceration. “The state surrounded me with violence. All they did was prepare me for this” future of crime and violence.

But Laster is quick to stress that he isn’t trying to dodge responsibility for his actions. “That’s not an excuse, but an explanation,” he said of his assessment of juvenile detention.

When he was released from Texas Youth Commission, Laster lived first in a group home in Marshall and then with his sister, who’s less than a year older than he is. He described his work record outside of prison as spotty, and noted that he spent time in jail more than once, and when he was out, he often supported himself by selling drugs.

In his mid-twenties, Laster had a son, gaining full custody when the child was 18 months old. Laster raised his son himself — right up until the time his son was 7 and Laster was arrested for the attack on Burnett.

His son is still a source of great pride for Laster, whose eyes twinkle as he talks about his boy. “I taught him how to read and write,” he said. “He plays the trombone. He’s in National Honor Society and he’s extremely smart.”

Laster described what he called the best memory of his life — sitting with his son on the sofa, eating cookies and watching Sponge Bob Squarepants — before remorsefully acknowledging that he threw that away. “I chose this [violence and a prison sentence] over my son,” he said.

Laster gets to talk to his son on the phone from prison, but not often enough, he said. Prisoners can only call approved numbers, which must be land lines or cell phones that are billed monthly. His ex has a cell she pays monthly, so that number can’t be on his approved list. That means he only gets to talk with his son when the boy visits Laster’s aunt.

Laster recalled one instance when his son once asked him, “Why are you in there?”

“I told him I was at a party,” Laster said. “I told him I made a very foolish decision and I assaulted someone. I hurt this guy.”

“How hard did you hurt him?” his son asked.

“Pretty bad,” he said, adding that he apologized to his son for not being there for him.

Laster said his son was always a good kid he never had to spank, which means his son has “never seen the violent side of me.” That makes him happy, Laster said, because his violent side scares even him.

“One of the worst feelings in the world is not being in control,” he said. “I don’t like that I’m subject to hurt someone.”

He said that violent side only comes out when he’s drunk or high and he wishes there was counseling available. Since there isn’t, he has taken a course in prison called Christians Against Substance Abuse. But every time they were about to talk about an issue, like anger, the subject changed to the Bible, and since, Laster said, he’s not particularly religious, those classes didn’t help him very much

But classes did encourage him to read some self-help books that were helpful.

“I was mad at myself, at everyone else, at the system,” Laster said of what he has learned about himself. “My go-to feeling was, ‘I don’t care.’”

He described the night of the attack as one that began badly and quickly got worse. Already drunk, he got a ride to the party rather than drive himself. At one point he left and says now he wishes he hadn’t returned.

What’s next?

Laster had his first parole hearing last year. He described it as 10 minutes with people who wouldn’t be voting on whether to grant him parole.

He said they asked him: “Why did you stab this person so many times?” Laster disputed that characterization, telling them that he was in prison for assault with his hands and feet. But, he noted, the parole board sees all the charges as well as his full criminal history, which includes earlier drug charges and two DWIs.

Laster insists he’s planning to remain sober. That’s why, when he’s released, he doesn’t want to return to Paris where he’d be surrounded by people who are still doing drugs.

“My sobriety is very important to me,” he said several times during our visit.

In prison, among other skills, Laster said he has learned welding and hopes to find a job in that field when he is released. He also hopes to make amends to his son for not being there for him during the years he was locked up.

If he serves his entire sentence, Laster will remain in prison until Nov. 2, 2019.

Final words
Before I left Dallas, I asked Burnett if he had a message for Laster. He said nothing in particular he wanted me to relay, but told me I could tell Laster anything I thought was appropriate.

So I told Laster that after the sentencing, Burnett took a year to recover physically and emotionally, but now he’s living near Dallas, has done a lot of good in the community helping other attack victims and has a very happy life.

During the two hours we spoke, Laster repeated that he took full responsibility for his actions, and stressed that he didn’t want anything I wrote to sound like he was making excuses.

So, just before I left the prison, I asked Laster if he had a message for Burnett. Tears came to his eyes, and he thought for a moment.

“I apologize,” he said.

He tried to find additional words, then shook his head.

“Tell him I apologize.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2016.

—  David Taffet

Charges dropped against 3rd suspect in brutal gay-bashing of Burke Burnett in E. Texas

Burke-Burnett

BEATEN AND BURNED | Burnett, shown hours after the attack, said the three suspects yelled anti-gay slurs as they sucker-punched him in the eye, stabbed him in the back and arm with a broken beer bottle, and threw him onto a lit burn barrel.

Charges have been dropped against the third suspect in a brutal gay-bashing in East Texas last year.

The Paris News reports that charges were dropped against Daniel Shawn Martin, 33, because Martin was not present at the Halloween party where the beating of 26-year-old Burke Burnett took place.

“We had a number of witnesses who came forward to say Martin was not there, and it was confirmed he was not involved,” Lamar County District Attorney Gary Young told the newspaper. “Also the victim confirmed Martin was not the assailant.”

Martin was one of three suspects charged in Burnett’s beating on Oct. 30 at a Halloween party in Reno, just east of Paris and 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

Burnett, who’s gay, suffered second-degree burns and needed more than 30 stitches. He said his attackers yelled anti-gay slurs as they sucker-punched him in the eye, stabbed him in the back and arm with a broken beer bottle, and threw him onto a lit burn barrel. The case made national news after graphic photos of Burnett’s injuries were posted on Dallas Voice’s website.

James Mitchell Laster, 33, was sentenced to eight years in prison in February after pleading no contest to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, including a hate crime enhancement, in the case. Micky Joe Smith, 25, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in April after pleading guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, plus a hate crime enhancement.

—  John Wright

2nd suspect gets 10 years in Reno hate crime

Burke-Burnett

Burke Burnett is shown after the attack.

Micky Joe Smith

The victim of a brutal anti-gay hate crime in East Texas last fall said Wednesday he was “grateful and comforted” after the second of three suspects in the attack was sentenced to 10 years in prison this week.

Micky Joe Smith, 25, of Brookston pleaded no contest Tuesday to a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, plus a hate crime enhancement, in the beating of 26-year-old Burke Burnett, according to Burnett’s attorney, Don Haslam.

Burnett, who’s gay, suffered second-degree burns and needed more than 30 stitches following the attack at a private Halloween party in Reno, a small town just east of Paris and 100 miles northeast of Dallas, in the early morning hours of Oct. 30.

Burnett’s attackers yelled anti-gay slurs as they sucker-punched him in the eye, stabbed him in the back and arm with a broken beer bottle, and threw him onto a lit burn barrel. The case made national news after graphic photos of Burnett’s injuries were posted on Instant Tea.

“I am grateful and comforted to hear of the sentencing of Micky Joe Smith,” Burnett said Wednesday. “So many people who have endured similar experiences of hate crimes have not been afforded the opportunity to see justice served. The gay community in North Texas is a safer place today.”

Burnett declined further comment.

In February, 32-year-old James Mitchell Laster of Paris pleaded no contest to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, including a hate crime enhancement, and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Burnett’s attack. A third suspect, 33-year-old Daniel Shawn Martin of Paris, was scheduled for a jury trial Wednesday, but the proceeding was postponed, Haslam said.

Martin is charged with aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, as well as a hate crime enhancement.

“It’ll be a shock to me if he [Martin] eludes the hate crime enhancement, whether he goes to trial or not,” Haslam said.

—  John Wright

1st of 3 suspects in brutal anti-gay hate crime in Reno, Texas, sentenced to 8 years in prison

Burke-Burnett

Victim Burke Burnett is shown after the attack.

James Mitchell Laster

One of three suspects in a brutal anti-gay hate crime in East Texas in October has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

James Mitchell Laster, 33, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to eight years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Thursday, Feb. 23, a representative from the Lamar County District Clerk’s Office confirmed today.

Lamar County District Attorney Gary Young was in a jury trial and unavailable for comment this afternoon, according to his office. However, Young told the Paris News last week that Laster also “pled true to the hate crime allegation.” Young said Laster must serve a minimum of four years before he’s eligible for parole.

Laster was one of three suspects charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault, in addition to hate crime enhancements, in the beating of 26-year-old Burke Burnett.

Burnett, who’s gay, suffered second-degree burns and needed more than 30 stitches following the attack at a private Halloween party in Reno, a small town just east of Paris and 100 miles northeast of Dallas, in the early morning hours of Oct. 30.

Burnett said his three attackers yelled anti-gay slurs as they sucker-punched him in the eye, stabbed him in the back and arm with a broken beer bottle, and threw him onto a lit burn barrel. The case made national news after graphic photos of Burnett’s injuries were posted on Dallas Voice’s website.

Burnett, who now reportedly lives in Houston, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment this afternoon.

The other two suspects in the attack, 25-year-old Micky Joe Smith of Brookston, and 33-year-old Daniel Shawn Martin of Paris, are awaiting trial, according to online Lamar County court records.

Laster was initially charged with one count of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, hate crime, repeat offender; and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, hate crime, repeat offender. The other charges reportedly were dropped in exchange for Laster’s guilty plea. Aggravated assault is a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison. However, the hate crime designation could have enhanced the charge to a first-degree felony, punishable by life in prison.

—  John Wright

BREAKING: 3 suspects charged with hate crimes for brutal attack on gay man in Reno, Texas

Burke-Burnett

Burke Burnett

JOHN WRIGHT  |  Senior Political Writer

Three suspects will face hate crimes charges in the brutal beating of a gay man who was stabbed repeatedly with a broken beer bottle and thrown onto a fire.

The victim, 26-year-old Burke Burnett, said he was notified by the Lamar County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday, Nov. 10 that his attackers will face hate crimes enhancements in the case. The Paris News reported on its website Thursday that a Lamar County grand jury indicted the suspects on three counts each of aggravated assault with hate crimes enhancements. Two of the three suspects will also face enhancements as repeat offenders.

Aggravated assault is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison, but the hate crimes enhancements would bump up the charges, making them first-degree felonies punishable by up to life in prison.

Lamar County District Attorney Gary Young couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

“I’m super-happy about today’s news,” Burnett told Dallas Voice. “That makes me feel really good. It was a quick indictment. I’m just pleased with how Gary Young, the DA, is handling it.”

Burnett suffered second-degree burns and needed more than 30 stitches following the attack at a private party in Reno, a small town just east of Paris and 100 miles northeast of Dallas, in the early morning hours of Oct. 30.

He said his three attackers yelled anti-gay slurs as they sucker-punched him in the eye, stabbed him in the back and arm with a broken beer bottle, and threw him onto a lit burn barrel.

The case made national news after graphic photos of Burnett’s injuries were posted on Dallas Voice’s website.

The three suspects — 31-year-old James Mitchell Lasater III of Paris, 25-year-old Micky Joe Smith of Brookston, and 33-year-old Daniel Shawn Martin of Paris — were arrested in the days after the attack by the Reno Police Department.

According to the Paris News, each is now charged with one count of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Lasater and Smith were indicted as repeat offenders.

Burnett said he had the last of his stitches removed Thursday and there are no signs of permanent damage. He said the burns are “still ugly but they’re definitely healing up” and his black eye is barely noticeable anymore.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, said he was pleased to learn of the indictments.

“I certainly think this was a bias-motivated crime,” Smith said. “This is what our hate crimes act is for. It’s good from the standpoint that it could result in enhanced penalties. It’s equally if not more important that it sends a message that Lamar County is not going to tolerate bias crimes.”

Texas’ James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, passed in 2001, provides enhanced penalties for hate crimes motivated by a victim’s race, religion, color, sex, disability, sexual preference, age, or national origin. The act was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

—  John Wright

WATCH: Burke Burnett on MSNBC

Burke Burnett, the gay man who was brutally beaten in an apparent hate crime in Reno, Texas, eight days ago, made his first appearance on national TV this morning, when he was interviewed by MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts. Watch it below.

—  John Wright

WATCH: Gay beating victim speaks out

Best we can tell, The CW 33 on Wednesday night became the first TV station to air a report on the case of Burke Burnett, the 26-year-old from Paris who says he was the victim of a brutal anti-gay hate crime last weekend at a party in Reno, Texas. Burnett tells The CW’s Charles Bassett that he was inspired to come out as gay at 15 following the murder of Matthew Shepard. “It really, really scared me as a little boy to think that that’s what happens to gay people,” Burnett says. Bassett’s report notes that Reno police are being tight-lipped about their investigation but now have three suspects in custody charged with aggravated assault. “I haven’t prayed enough about that yet to know exactly what I want done to these people,” Burnett says, “but it’s not my job to decide what justice for these guys is.” Watch the video below, and look for a full story in Friday’s Dallas Voice.

—  John Wright

UPDATE: 3rd arrest in gay man’s beating

Burke Burnett

A third suspect has been arrested in the brutal beating of a gay man last weekend in Reno, Texas.

Micky Joe Smith, 25, is expected to face the same charges as the other two suspects — aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. The charges are second-degree felonies, punishable by up 20 years in prison, and not first-degree felonies as previously reported.

Daniel Martin, 33, and James “Tray” Mitchell Laster III, 31, were arrested late Tuesday in the beating of 26-year-old Burke Burnett. Burnett was stabbed at least twice with a broken beer bottle and thrown onto a fire at a private party early Sunday, by up to four men who yelled gay slurs during the attack.

Martin and Laster are each being held on $250,000 bond, according to the Lamar County Sheriff’s Department. No bond amount had been set for Smith, who was taken into custody today.

Lamar County District Attorney Gary Young, whose office is handling the cases, said it will be up to a grand jury to decide whether they are prosecuted as hate crimes. Under Texas law, a hate crime enhancement could result in the charges being bumped up from second-degree felonies to first-degree felonies — punishable by five to 99 years in prison.

“We’re in the process of receiving all the information as a result of the investigation,” Young said. “We will present all that information to the grand jury, including all the information as to whether it’s a hate crime or not. The grand jury will make a determination whether it [a hate crime] is or isn’t part of the charge. If their actions of committing the aggravated assault are based on race or sexual orientation or whatever it may be, the grand jury can choose to enhance the offense up a level.”

Young declined to further discuss the cases.

Burnett couldn’t immediately be reached, but his friend Chivas Clem said they were relieved at the arrests. Clem previously said he felt authorities may try to brush the crime under the rug.

“The fact that they’re taking it seriously is important and shows good faith on their part that they’re treating gays and lesbians as a legitimate minority,” Clem said.

—  John Wright

BREAKING: 2 arrested in gay man’s beating

James Mitchell Laster, left, and Daniel Martin (Lamar County Sheriff's Department)

Two men have been arrested in connection with the brutal assault of a gay man early Sunday in Reno, Texas — which the victim and his friends say was a hate crime.

Reno Police Chief Jeff W. Sugg announced in a two-sentence statement this morning that Daniel Martin, 33, and James “Tray” Mitchell Laster III, 31, have been arrested in the beating of 26-year-old Burke Burnett.

Burke Burnett

Burnett said he was stabbed at least twice with a broken beer bottle and thrown onto a fire at a private party early Sunday, by up to four men who yelled gay slurs during the attack. Burnett needed more than 30 stitches to close stab wounds to his back and forearm, as well as a cut above his left eye from being sucker-punched at the start of the attack. He also suffered second-degree burns from being thrown onto a lit burn barrel.

Martin and Laster were arrested late Tuesday. Each is charged with one count of aggravated assault with a a deadly weapon, and one count of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury —  second-degree felonies punishable by up to 20 years in prison. According to Sugg’s statement, the investigation is ongoing.

Reno police spokeswoman Alicia Myrick said it will be up the Lamar County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether the case is prosecuted as a hate crime.

“That’s not our decision,” Myrick said.

More to come …

—  John Wright

Gay man stabbed with broken beer bottle, thrown onto fire in apparent hate crime in Reno, TX

Burke Burnett says he was punched in the eye, stabbed with a broken beer bottle and thrown onto a lit burn barrel early Sunday at a party in Reno, Texas. View more photos of Burnett's injuries below.

UPDATE: Three suspects have been arrested in connection with this crime. Read more here.

A 26-year-old gay man says he was the victim of a brutal hate crime early Sunday in Reno, Texas — a small town just east of Paris and about 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

Burke Burnett said he was at a private party at about 1 a.m. when four men suddenly attacked him, stabbing him at least twice with a broken beer bottle before throwing him onto a fire. His attackers yelled things like “pussy-ass faggot,” “gay bitch” and “cock-sucking punk,” Burnett said.

Burnett said it took 30 stitches to close stab wounds to his back and forearm, as well as a cut above his left eye. He also sustained second-degree burns and severe bruises.

“They knew I was gay,” Burnett said Monday. “I’m convinced they were trying to kill me.”

Jeff Sugg, interim chief of the Reno Police Department, released a statement Monday afternoon saying: “The Reno Police Department is currently investigating an aggravated assault that took place last weekend. The investigation is ongoing and additional information will be provided when available.”

Reno police officials declined to further discuss their investigation.

Burnett said the officer investigating the case told him the attack will be classified as a hate crime. But Burnett said his attackers, whose identities are known, remain at large, and the officer told him it could be two weeks before they’re arrested.

“I’m scared for my life,” Burnett said, adding that he’s staying with a family friend. “I’m scared to go home. These guys have nothing to lose.”

—  John Wright