Mississippi 'Goon Squad' torture defendants get prison terms of 10 to 40 years

By Steve Gorman and Brendan O'Brien

(Reuters) -A federal judge in Mississippi on Thursday wrapped up sentencing of six white former law enforcement officers who pleaded guilty to the "Goon Squad" torture and sexual abuse of two Black men, leaving the defendants each facing from 10 to 40 years in prison.

The six men still face sentencing on state charges for their roles in the home-invasion assault, which has stood out among dozens of racially charged U.S. police misconduct cases in recent years for the chilling nature of its calculated brutality.

The two victims, Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, were handcuffed, stripped naked, beaten, sexually assaulted and subjected to electric Taser shocks and waterboarding as the officers screamed racial slurs at them, according to accounts filed by prosecutors in the case.

The two-hour ordeal in January 2023 began when the six officers stormed into the house without a warrant, ostensibly looking for illegal drugs, and ended in a mock execution that left Jenkins gravely wounded from a gunshot to the mouth, court records showed.

The former lawmen referred to themselves as members of "the Goon Squad," a group that routinely used excessive force, according to the case record. All but one were members of the Rankin County Sheriff's Office.

"The depravity of the crimes committed by these defendants cannot be overstated," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement announcing the penalties imposed.

The case finally brought national attention to what Rankin County residents say has been decades of abuse perpetrated by patrol officers and detectives in the sheriff's department against poor people, white and Black, in central Mississippi.

The wider pattern was documented in late November 2023, a few months after the six defendants had pleaded guilty to federal and state charges, in a joint inquiry by the New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

The six were sentenced this week in Jackson, the state capital, on the federal offenses, including civil rights conspiracy, deprivation of rights under color of law, conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice.

'I SAW THE DEVIL'

Brett McAlpin, 53, former chief investigator for the sheriff's department, was sentenced on Thursday to more than 27 years in prison. Later in the day, U.S. District Judge Tom Lee imposed a 10-year sentence on the final defendant, Joshua Hartfield, 32, a former narcotics investigator from the police force in Richland, Mississippi.

Christian Dedmon, 29, a former narcotics detective who prosecutors considered a ringleader of the January raid, received the toughest prison term of the group, 40 years, when sentenced on Wednesday. Hunter Elward, 31, who fired the gunshot that wounded Jenkins, was given 20 years on Tuesday.

Jeffrey Middleton, 46, a sheriff's lieutenant at the time of the raid, was sentenced on Tuesday to 17-1/2 years. Daniel Opdyke, 28, received the same sentence on Wednesday.

Addressing the court on Wednesday, in his first spoken remarks during the sentencings, Parker gave a detailed account of the torment he endured, saying, "That night I saw the devil come to me," WLBT News, an NBC affiliate in Jackson, reported.

According to federal prosecutors, the six defendants barged into the house where the victims were staying in Braxton, Mississippi, on Jan. 24, 2023, after the sheriff's office had received a complaint from a white neighbor that they had seen "suspicious behavior" from the Black men living there.

Upon entering the home without warning or probable cause, the officers detained Jenkins and Parker, demanding to know "where the drugs were," court documents said.

After he and his cohorts had subjected their victims to nearly two hours of torture, Elward shoved the barrel of a gun into Jenkins' mouth, unaware that a bullet was in the chamber and pulled the trigger, firing a gunshot that shattered Jenkins' jaw and lacerated his tongue.

Rather than render medical aid as Jenkins lay bleeding on the floor, the officers reassembled outside to devise a cover story. They left a gun at the scene, destroyed surveillance video, tried to burn the victims' clothes and planted illegal drugs in the house.

The U.S. Justice Department opened a federal investigation of the case in February 2023. Jenkins and Parker filed a $400 million federal civil rights lawsuit against Rankin County last June.

The guilty pleas entered in federal court in August were part of a larger criminal settlement that included guilty pleas to state charges. A date has not yet been set for sentencing in the state case. The defendants are to serve their federal and state sentences concurrently.

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)