By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON – The Mississippi NAACP is calling on state and federal authorities to investigate whether the hit-and-run killing of a black man was racially motivated.
A white 17-year-old male has been charged with murder in the July 22 death of Johnny Lee Butts, authorities said. The 61-year-old was struck by a vehicle and killed while he was taking an early-morning walk on a rural road near his home in north Mississippi’s Panola County.
District Attorney John Champion told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the case is being presented to a grand jury Wednesday in one of Panola County’s two judicial districts. He said his office is investigating whether there was a racial motivation in the incident that left Butts dead at the scene.
Conviction on a murder charge can carry a sentence of life in prison. A person convicted under Mississippi’s hate-crimes law could receive enhanced penalties.
Champion also said FBI agents met with state investigators Monday. The district attorney said he could not comment on the evidence of the case.
The teenager was arrested July 22 and remains in the Panola County Jail under a $300,000 bond. At least one passenger was in the teen’s car, investigators said.
Champion said the 17-year-old and a younger teenager who was in the car also are charged with burglary of a church. A break-in occurred at a church several miles from where Butts was killed.
Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson said Tuesday that the killing of Butts is reminiscent of the June 2011 killing of a black man, James Craig Anderson, who was run down in Jackson by a pickup truck driven by a white teenager from nearby Brandon.
“At this point, we are just trying to make sure there is a full investigation of the incident,” Johnson said of the Panola County killing.
The killing of Anderson was captured on a hotel’s surveillance cameras. Wilbur Colom of Columbus, Miss., an attorney representing Butts’ family, said he doesn’t know of any video of the hit-and-run of Butts, which occurred in an isolated area on Mississippi Highway 310, between Batesville and Senatobia.
Despite the circumstances of their family member’s death, Butts’ relatives are praying for the people who are charged or are under investigation, Colom said.
“They are so confident in their religion that they believe Mr. Butts is in a better place, that God has him,” Colom told the AP. “They expressed no anger and no hatred toward anyone. All they want is a complete investigation and the appropriate punishment for what was done.”
Colom said “we cannot read the minds of those kids” to know whether the hit-and-run was racially motivated, but the family wants investigators to question the people who were in the car to find out if race was discussed.