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

3 arrested in assault on gay man in Reno

Victim Burke Burnett says he is relieved the men are behind bars and that he believes the attack was an anti-gay hate crime

Burke-Burnett

BRUISED AND BLOODIED | Burke Burnett said he was sucker-punched in the left eye at the beginning of the attack.

JOHN WRIGHT |  Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

RENO, Lamar County — The victim of a brutal assault last weekend in East Texas said he’s relieved three suspects have been arrested in connection with the attack, which he believes was an anti-gay hate crime.

But it remained unclear this week whether the case is being investigated as an anti-gay hate crime by police and whether it will be prosecuted as one by the Lamar County District Attorney’s Office.

Burke Burnett, 26, said he was jumped by several men at a Halloween party early Sunday in Reno — a tiny town just east of Paris and about 100 miles northeast of Dallas. Burnett’s attackers yelled anti-gay slurs as they stabbed him repeatedly with a broken beer bottle and threw him onto a fire.

He needed more than 30 stitches and suffered second-degree burns.

After graphic photos of Burnett’s injuries were posted online by Dallas Voice and drew national attention to the case, Reno police arrested three suspects Tuesday and Wednesday and charged them with aggravated assault.

“I’m grateful that they’re in custody,” Burnett said Thursday. “I’m in a lot of pain, but I am feeling better. I don’t want to see this ever happen to anybody else again.”

Burnett, who lives in Paris and came out as gay when he was 15, said he’s convinced the attack was fueled by his sexual orientation.

“The things they were screaming while they were doing it leave no question in my mind as to what their motives were,” Burnett said. “If that constitutes a hate crime … I don’t know all the laws behind that. It’s not my job to judge these guys or to say what justice is. I just hope that justice is served because what they did was wrong. It would have been wrong no matter who they did it to.”

Burke-Burnett-2

SERIOUS BODILY INJURY | Burnett suffered second-degree burns on his arms when he was thrown onto a lit burn barrel.

Reno police said they’ve arrested 31-year-old James “Tray” Mitchell Laster III, 33-year-old Daniel Martin, and 25-year-old Micky Joe Smith. All three are charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury — second-degree felonies punishable by up 20 years in prison. Each is being held on $250,000 bond.

Police have been tightlipped about their investigation and declined to release written arrest reports this week. A representative from the Reno Police Department indicated it will be up to the Lamar County District Attorney’s Office to decide whether the attack was an anti-gay hate crime.

Lamar County District Attorney Gary Young, in turn, said it will be up to a grand jury to make that determination. Under Texas law, a hate crime is not a separate charge but rather an enhancement that could result in the existing charges being bumped up from second-degree felonies to first-degree felonies — punishable by up to 99 years in prison.

“We’re in the process of receiving all the information as a result of the investigation,” Young told Dallas Voice. “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.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality Texas, said the quick arrests in the case are a positive sign that Burnett’s attack isn’t being swept under the rug. But Smith said there are always concerns about whether police and prosecutors understand how the state’s hate crime law is supposed to work.

“While it’s true that that’s a prosecutor’s decision, it’s also important that the law enforcement investigators document everything that a prosecutor would need to know in order to elect to prosecute it as such,” Smith said. “The police can investigate it as such, and then the district attorney can prosecute it as such. A grand jury is going to receive proposed indictments from the District Attorney’s Office. The prosecutor would ask a grand jury for an indictment under those terms.”

Equality Texas has long advocated for a legislative study on enforcement of the state’s hate crimes act, rarely used by prosecutors in the 10 years since it passed.

“The reporting from jurisdictions in Texas is not comparable to departments of similar sizes in other states, and that’s a function of the state not adequately training and enforcing and using the hate crimes act,” Smith said. “They don’t aggressively report because they think it would reflect badly on their community, where in actuality the converse is true. In communities that aggressively report, it actually makes those communities safer.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

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