Federal prosecutors in Sacramento are once again taking on what they describe as a particularly flagrant hate crime.
An indictment returned Jan. 16 by a grand jury and unsealed last week accuses three Yuba County men of an unprovoked attack on a couple because the man is white and the woman is black.
The indictment charges Perry Sylvester Jackson, 27, Billy James Hammett, 28, and Anthony Merrell Tyler, 32, all of Olivehurst, with one count of conspiracy and two counts of beating the couple in 2011.
The charges are grounded in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a 2009 amendment to a statute that criminalizes violence motivated by race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.
Jackson, Hammett and Tyler were arrested by FBI agents last week and pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd.
Heading the case for the government is Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Steven Lapham, a supervisor in the U.S. attorney's office and one of its top prosecutors.
At a hearing Friday, Lapham clashed with defense lawyer Mark Reichel over whether Jackson should be free on bail pending trial. After a protracted hearing, Drozd ordered Jackson held without bail to "ensure the safety of the community." The strictures of the federal Bail Reform Act of 1984, juxtaposed with Jackson's history of violence, made it "a difficult call," the judge said.
Hammett's attorney did not challenge Lapham's request for detention without bail, and Drozd granted it. He ordered Tyler released on a $150,000 unsecured appearance bond.
Hate crimes have been a priority of U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner going back to his days as a line prosecutor who handled a number of them and who was the office's hate-crimes coordinator.
Hate crimes, Wagner said Monday, "are intended to send a message of intolerance and instill fear in a larger community. Consequently, it is important that they be aggressively prosecuted and people in the community see that something is being done."
As to the Yuba County case, Wagner said, "In our view this is a pretty egregious incident, and the district attorney up there agreed that a federal prosecution may have a greater impact.
"Depending on the circumstances, punishment is generally more severe in federal court," he explained.
In his bid to keep Jackson locked up, Lapham told the judge that a hate crime is random, spontaneous and often occurs so suddenly that a victim is overwhelmed without warning, the prosecutor said.
Hate crimes tend to be more violent, Lapham said, because they are not meant to temporarily incapacitate. More often than not, he said, they brutally inflict serious, sometimes lasting injuries.
A classic example, the prosecutor indicated, is what happened late on the night of April 18, 2011, when a car occupied by the white man and two black women pulled into the parking lot of the Full Stop Market in Linda, where Jackson, Hammett and Tyler happened to be "hanging out."
The indictment, which identifies the male victim as "R.C.," the driver as "S.L.," and the second woman as "G.W.," recounts this description of the incident:
In an attempt to distract the occupants of the now-parked car, Hammett quickly approached the driver's side, calling her a "n-----."
Jackson charged up to the passenger side calling the man a "n----- lover," reached through the car's open window and punched R.C.
Hammett opened the driver's door, kicked S.L. and struck her in the head. Jackson opened the front passenger door and, when R.C. exited the car, Jackson knocked him to the ground, continued to pummel him, and with Hammett pursued him when he fled.
Meanwhile, the indictment says, Tyler smashed the windshield of the car with a crowbar, swung it at R.C. as he lay on the ground and then joined the pursuit of R.C. Tyler referred to G.W. as a "n-----."
A parking lot surveillance camera captured the 90-second attack without sound.
After the three were arrested in 2011 by Yuba County sheriff's officers, Hammett was a fugitive for 15 months, court papers show.
Those papers say he has an affiliation with white supremacists, multiple parole violations and no known steady employment or significant community ties.
In April 2006, court records show, Hammett was sentenced to six years in prison for beating a black man.
Lapham did not quarrel with Tyler's release on a $150,000 unsecured appearance bond, although the prosecutor noted Tyler has been arrested for nonviolent weapons violations and has "white power" and swastika tattoos.
But the argument over Jackson's detention went on for more than an hour, during which a lot of his dirty laundry was aired.
Reichel, always a fierce advocate for his clients, argued that with bail Jackson would be able to keep his job and could get treatment for his abuse of alcohol, which he said has led to a series of DUI convictions.
"He's not a threat to society," Reichel insisted.
"He is associated with the white power movement," Lapham countered. "He is motivated by skin color. That's more dangerous than greed."