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Attorney's motion may delay Darby murder trial

By John Howell Sr.
and Billy Davis

The attorney for a Senatobia man accused of a hit-and-run murder and the burglary and vandalism of a church east of Como last July has asked for the trial to be continued until the August term of Panola County Circuit Court.

Attorney Anthony L. Farese filed a motion January 15 asking for a continuance for Matthew Whitten Darby of Senatobia. Darby was charged with running down and killing pedestrian Johnny Lee Butts, 61, as he walked near his home on Highway 310 east of Como on July 22. Darby and an unindicted juvenile are also charged with three counts related burglary and vandalism at Union Baptist Church on that same date. Darby has entered pleas of not guilty on all counts. The defense attorney asks for continuances to August in both cases.

Circuit Judge Jimmy McClure has not ruled on  Farese’s Jan. 15 request for continuance.

Hate crime charges sought
Family members and friends have called for Butts’ murder to be prosecuted as a hate crime. Butts was black. Darby is white.

Several days after Butts was killed, state NAACP leader Derrick Johnson joined the victim’s relatives in calling for an outside investigation into Butts’ death. He cited the June, 2011 death of James Anderson who was a black man run over in Jackson by a white teen. Anderson’s murder was recorded by a video surveillance camera which ultimately led to the prosecution of seven white men for murder and/or hate crime indictments.

“At this point we are just trying to make sure there is a full investigation of the incident,” Johnson said last August. Johnson said that if the hit-and-run was racially motivated, it could trigger both federal and state hate crimes statutes.

Twice the time
Under Mississippi law the period of imprisonment or the fine to be imposed may be enhanced by punishment up to twice that authorized by law for a misdemeanor or felony committed by reason of the actual or perceived race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, national origin or gender of the victim, according to a spokesman for the Mississippi Attorney General.

“We are moving forward on the state-level charge,” Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby told The Panolian in August. “The FBI is checking on the other,” he said.

The Panola County sheriff is not related to the defendant who shares his last name.

Federal investigation
The Panolian contacted the FBI this week about its own investigation, learning from a spokesman from the Jackson office that the federal agency conducted an investigation into Butts’ murder. The findings of the federal investigation are in the hands of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Justice Department, which will  determine is a federal charge of a hate crime is warranted.

“After a final review of the information collected during the course of the FBI’s investigation, the Department of Justice will make a final determination as to whether evidence indicates that a federal hate crime statute has been violated,” the FBI spokesman said in an e-mail.

CNN report raises visibility
The controversy surrounding Darby’s prosecution was raised to national visibility with a Jan. 17 report on CNN by reporter Drew Griffin, who also raised the specter of Anderson’s murder during the opening segment. Griffin interviewed District Attorney John Champion, Sheriff Darby and an unknown FBI spokesman as well as Butts’ relatives for the report.

Church vandalism

The CNN report did not mention the burglary and vandalism at the Union Baptist Church that preceded Butts’ murder. Union Baptist Church is attended by a congregation that is all-white or predominantly white. The three-count indictment alleges that Darby and the unindicted juvenile conspired to commit burglary, burglarized the church and committed felony malicious mischief there by destroying property with a value exceeding $500.

The CNN report states that it had obtained records of testimony before the Panola County Grand Jury that indicted Darby. Grand jury testimony is sealed. It’s not clear how CNN obtained the copy.

Co-defendant interview
The CNN report also displayed copies of an interview of a co-defendant conducted by a sheriff’s department investigator.

A court official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the grand jury testimony and investigator’s report had been placed into Darby’s indictment folder by mistake and have since been removed.

The CNN report quoted from the grand jury testimony and the investigator’s report, both from a juvenile co-defendant in the car, to suggest Darby had purposely hit Butts because he was black.

Context of remarks questioned

In the investigator’s interview, however, the CNN story failed to show the context of the quote, which is visible to the viewer. The investigator went on to ask the juvenile if he believed Darby “doesn’t like black people.”

“Whit has many black friends,” the juvenile replied.

“So you don’t think this was a black/white thing? You just think (Darby) just wanted to run over somebody you think?” the investigator asked.
“Either that or something went wrong in his head. That is all I can figure,” the juvenile said.

Testimony removed
A copy of the grand jury testimony, which has been removed from the case file, was unavailable for review by The Panolian.
The case file in Sardis containing Darby’s indictment for murder contained the indictment, Farese’s requests for continuances and one order granting a continuance, Farese’s motion for discovery and the defense attorney’s request to enter plea negotiations on behalf of his client. Another folder that contained Darby’s indictment in the church burglary and vandalism contained similar documents and also a response to the defendant’s motion for discovery.

Second incident

The CNN report also included another incident that occurred a few days after Butts’ murder in which a vehicle occupied by young white men swerved toward a group of young black pedestrians walking near the location where Butts was struck, forcing them to jump into a ditch to keep from being run over.
Reporter Griffin said that the sheriff’s department would not furnish an incident report from the investigation. The report also claimed that Sheriff Darby had warned CNN not to “stir up trouble” and that the sheriff threatened them. The sheriff was unavailable for comment for this story.

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