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: 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