By Scott Bronstein and Drew Griffin, CNN Special Investigations Unit- COMO, Mississippi (CNN) — It was a hot Sunday morning last July when, right on schedule at 6:30 a.m., 61-year-old Johnny Lee Butts left his rural Mississippi home on his morning ritual, a 4-mile walk.
His neighbor, Otis Brooks, says Butts, a Sunday school teacher, waved as he passed his front door wearing a blue T-shirt.
Brooks remembers that his neighbor’s skin tone was easily visible that morning. “You could tell he was black; you could see his arms.” The point would become important later.
At nearly 7 a.m., about an hour after sunrise, three white teenagers were barreling down Panola County Mississippi Highway 310 in a white Monte Carlo. Two of the three teens later admitted they had been heavily drinking vodka and smoking marijuana all night. They were headed right toward Butts.
The two teen passengers said they and the driver, 18-year-old Matthew Whitten “Whit” Darby, spotted a man walking on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.
In statements to police and also in statements given to a grand jury, all obtained exclusively by CNN, the two teenagers, a then-15-year-old and 18-year-old Tony Hopper Jr., described what happened next.
“We see a walker on the side of the road. The complete left side of the road while we are on the complete right side of the road,” the unidentified teen told a police lieutenant. “And I pointed out to say, ‘watch out there is a walker there…'”
The unnamed teen continued his story: “Whit slightly turns the steering wheel and I saw him. ‘Watch out, don’t do nothing stupid’ and then he just keep turning the steering wheel and eventually before we knew it he ran him straight over.”
“He didn’t slow down,” Hopper said in a statement to a deputy sheriff.
The deputy asked: “He never hit his brakes?” Hopper replied: “No sir.”
“Do you think he hit him on purpose?” asked the deputy.
“Yes, sir, I do,” said Hopper.
Butts was hit from behind by the Monte Carlo, which was traveling somewhere between 55 and 70 mph, according to the documents. The car violently tossed him into the air, slamming him into the windshield, and his head struck the rear windshield. Butts’ body hit the car with such force that the windshield collapsed into the car, bending the steering wheel back sharply. His leg was nearly severed.
Butts’ body was found lying in the road, 172 feet from where the car hit him, the documents show.
Darby stopped his badly damaged car. His two passengers told police they got out and looked at Butts’ pummeled body. Then they got back in the car and Darby sped away. Darby drove them to a house where they’d been partying, according to the documents, and the two teen passengers tried to sleep. Darby left the house alone and drove on to his grandmother’s home.
Much later that day, the two teen passengers turned themselves in to police. Darby was arrested, telling police exactly what the two other teens said he would say, that he hit a deer. Darby denied he was drinking or smoking marijuana.
Darby and his lawyer, along with Hopper and the unnamed teen, are not talking to CNN. Darby hasn’t entered a plea.
Seven months after his father’s death, Donny Butts, Johnny’s only child, retraced the route where his dad walked every morning. He visited the cross he’d previously laid at the spot where his father died.
Darby is in jail, charged with murder, but he is not charged with the added crime of “hate.”
In this racially charged area of rural Mississippi, Confederate flags fly in front of homes just down the road from where Johnny Butts was killed. The Butts family and many other African-Americans in this community say the police, the district attorney and white law enforcement of Panola County aren’t investigating why Johnny Lee Butts was killed. They say the motive was hate.
“They knew he was black,” said Donny Butts. “And that’s the only reason they ran him over because he was black. Point blank.”
Donny Butts says he was told that the district attorney had said flat out that this was not a crime of race. “Well what was it? I want to know what was it, if it wasn’t racist. It was just hate? I don’t understand.”
If the killing of Johnny Butts sounds hauntingly familiar, it’s because it is, to a degree.
Just a year before Johnny Butts was killed in north Mississippi, another African-American man was killed by a group of white teens about 160 miles south in Jackson, Mississippi. James Craig Anderson, 47, died after he was beaten and run over by a truck driven by Deryl Dedmon, who was part of a group of seven whites, mostly teenagers, from largely white Rankin County who decided to “go f**k with some n*****s” after a night of partying and drinking, law enforcement officials have said, quoting some of the suspects in the case.
Anderson’s death became national news after CNN obtained and released video that showed the gruesome murder as it happened.
The deadly attack and the shocking videotape prompted several large marches and prayer vigils in Jackson, a city of about 537,000 people.
Eventually, six white teens involved in that incident pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes for the attack on Anderson and for numerous other attacks on African-Americans. The driver of the truck also pleaded guilty to state murder and hate-crime charges and was sentenced to life in prison.
Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, an African-American, was the prosecutor in the Anderson case. In the case of Johnny Butts, the prosecuting district attorney, John Champion, is white. Many African-Americans in northern Mississippi say they believe the district attorney in the Butts case is not pursuing a hate crime because of his race.
Champion told CNN that there is “no evidence at all” that Darby killed Butts out of hate, or as a hate crime. One reason a hate crime has been ruled out, Champion said, is that the teens in the car that morning could not see whether Johnny Butts was black or white.
But that is not true, according to the statements given by one of the teens in the car. In grand jury testimony obtained exclusively by CNN, Tony Hopper Jr., who was riding in the back seat, testified that he could see Johnny Butts was black before the teens hit him.
“Could you tell whether he was a black man or a white man before ya’ll hit him?” Hopper was asked by the grand jury.
“Yes,” Hopper said. “I could tell that he was black.”
Hopper said the same thing on the day after the killing, when a sheriff’s deputy asked him: “Did y’all know if he was black or white?”
Hopper answered: “I could tell he was a black man.”
The 15-year-old passenger in the car, riding in the front seat, says in his statement he couldn’t tell whether Butts was black or white. CNN’s policy is not to identify juveniles in criminal cases.
In an interview that aired on local CNN affiliate ABC 24, Tony Hopper’s mother said, shortly after the incident: “It was racist and two of those kids freaked out and couldn’t do anything to get out of the car.”
Hope Hopper has since said nothing else publicly about it. She did tell local media that after speaking out, she and her family received death threats. She has declined comment to CNN.
When asked about what Hope Hopper said to local media, Champion said:
“I understand what she said, and I don’t know where she got that from. (She) never presented us with any kind of reason to say that it was. I don’t have a single piece of evidence to tell me it was race related, including the testimony of the two young men who were in the car.”
Champion says, particularly because of the earlier incident in Jackson, his team investigated the question of whether Butts was killed out of hate.
“Certainly it’s one of the things we investigated when we began the initial part of this — was this in fact a hate crime?” said Champion. “The investigators looked — not only at the facts of the crime — but at a possible motive. And during the course of the investigation we uncovered absolutely nothing that indicated this was a hate crime.”
Champion said he does not know the motive in the case.
“I really don’t have to prove motive, it’s not one of the elements I have to prove. I think only the driver knows what the motive is. I certainly do not believe in this case it was race related, though,” he said.
The district attorney declined to talk about any specifics of the case, and says he’s barred by law from talking about the testimony and statements given by the teenagers in the car.
The sheriff’s investigators, in interview transcripts obtained by CNN, don’t ask the teens many questions about the motive for running over Johnny Butts.
Champion said the investigation has exhaustively looked at the background of Darby and found no racism. Champion says he called in the FBI, which he says agreed race was not a factor.
But the FBI suggested to CNN it isn’t so sure. A spokesperson said: “The FBI absolutely considers this investigation to be still open.”
Pastor Fred Butts is Johnny Butts’ brother. He said his brother never had a negative thing to say about anyone, and he was a strong member of the local community. He taught Sunday school every weekend at his church. He exercised every day with his walk on the road. Fred Butts said he believes more was said in the car before the teens hit Butts, and he said he believes it was a hate crime.
“Actually, I think that those guys saw John walking. And I believe they said ‘There goes a “N-word.” And I believe that’s what make that guy just go turn over there, and just ran over him on purpose. I don’t believe that they was just … I just can’t believe no kind of way they could just be driving down the road and intentionally just cut over and hit somebody. On purpose,” Fred Butts said.
“But he did do it on purpose. You know, you don’t run over a dog on purpose. And this man, walking, exercising, they just cut — and hit him, and uh you know I just can’t see that.”
Asked why he thought the driver have done that, Fred Butts said: “That’s the question that the whole family wants to know. Why did you do it? And we don’t have no answers. And it don’t seem like nobody (is) trying to give us no answers. We want to know: Why did he do it?”
Fred Butts said he does not believe that the sheriff or the district attorney want to know the truth.
“They don’t want to push that issue,” he said, adding that he thinks they also don’t want to investigate a hate crime.
“I actually believe that,” he said.
Another disturbing fact CNN has uncovered in this case: Just minutes before the teens ran over Johnny Butts, two of them — Darby and the 15-year-old — vandalized a church, tearing it apart. Yet few questions about the possible motive for this were asked of any of the teens in any of the statements seen by CNN. There is very little asked about the victim’s race, nothing asked about why they vandalized the church, and few questions asked about the description of Johnny Lee Butts. Law enforcement officials apparently have not pursued this at all in their investigation. In fact, the interrogations by Panola County Sheriff’s investigators barely touch the surface of looking for a motive in the case.
There are also no questions asked about why three white teenagers from another county were driving in a rural and mostly African-American area in Panola County. And, none of the records CNN has obtained show Hope Hopper, the mother who said the crime was racially motivated, was ever even interviewed by authorities.
And there is still something else — a disturbing incident that occurred not long after Johnny Lee Butts was killed and just around the corner: Four young African-American boys say they were walking on the shoulder of Smart Road when two white men in a white Jeep aimed straight for them, scaring them into the ditch. The boys say the men were laughing when they drove off the road, racing toward the boys, forcing them to jump way back.
Adult neighbors told CNN they watched the whole thing from their porch. The families told CNN they called the Sheriff’s Office, and an officer came out and interviewed the boys and some of the adults.
CNN asked the Sheriff’s Office for a copy of the incident report on what happened to these boys. Surprisingly, after repeatedly declining to be interviewed about the Butts case, Sheriff Dennis Darby — no apparent relation to Whit Darby — called CNN back about the report the families gave to the sheriff’s deputy.
Sheriff Darby told CNN on the phone they had looked into the incident with the boys on the road and found nothing. “There’s nothing to this report,” he said, “it’s all hearsay,” and “he-said she-said.” Sheriff Darby told CNN he would not give a copy of the report to the network. Then the sheriff warned CNN not to “stir up trouble in my county.” He warned if the network pursued the story, “I’ll be coming after you.”
Whit Darby is scheduled for trial next month. Hopper and the juvenile have not been charged.
Donny Butts and his family think law enforcement officials should push harder for the truth in why his father was killed.
“If they pressured these guys, the truth would come out, but they are saying it wasn’t racist,” he said.
Asked if he thought his father’s death was a “modern lynching,” Donny Butts said: “Yes I do. What else could it have been? What they are saying is not true. I believe my daddy was lynched because of the color of his skin.”
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