The white Texas man facing federal hate crime charges for allegedly slugging a 79-year-old black man in a “knockout game” assault was denied bail Friday for an attack prosecutors say was racially motivated.
During a hearing in U.S. District Court in Houston, U.S. Magistrate Judge Frances Stacy said suspect Conrad Barrett, 27, is a flight risk and danger to the community, according to Barrett’s lawyer, George Parnham.
Parnham said he expected his client would not be granted bail. “We were prepared for that decision,” he said.
Barrett filmed the attack on his cellphone, prosecutors said. And in other videos on his phone, he used a derogatory word describing black people and suggested he “found the perfect African American suspect” to go after, according to the federal criminal complaint.
The unidentified victim was hospitalized for more than four days and required surgery to repair his broken jaw, authorities said.
“Hate crimes tear at the fabric of entire communities,” said Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels in a statement announcing Barrett’s charges Thursday.
So-called knockout attacks — in which thrill-seekers sucker-punch their victims for amusement — are not new but have recently gained widespread publicity.
The Justice Department’s involvement in the case against Barrett highlights a move by federal prosecutors to reduce racially motivated crimes. Barrett is accused of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The Civil Rights Division will work with our federal and state law enforcement partners to ensure that hate crimes are identified and prosecuted, and that justice is done,” Samuels said Thursday.
The Justice Department said in a statement Thursday when it announced the charges that it wants to ensure “hate crimes are identified and prosecuted, and that justice is done.”
Some observers have raised the question of racial hypocrisy by federal prosecutors who have ignored other knockout cases where the victims were white and the accused attackers were black.
At least eight recent incidents in Brooklyn, N.Y., have involved Jewish victims who say their attackers were black, the NYPD said.
After one early-morning assault last month, a 28-year-old Trinidadian man was charged with two felony hate crimes for allegedly striking a 24-year-old Jewish man wearing a yarmulke in the Midwood neighborhood. The Justice Department, however, didn’t get involved in the case.
But in the charges against Barrett, the feds may simply be confident they can win because of the evidence, said Houston criminal defense attorney Sean Buckley.
“This is something so egregious — from the view that you have an elderly black man seriously injured and another guy actually on tape talking about what he wanted to do, that for federal prosecutors why wouldn’t they get involved?” Buckley said. “This is an opportunity to send a message of deterrence against hate attacks.”
Barrett randomly found his victim on Nov. 24 in his hometown of Katy, Texas, prosecutors said. After the attack, he allegedly bragged about the incident by showing a cellphone video to a couple he met at a restaurant later that day.
The video, taken from the point-of-view of the person holding the phone, shows the perpetrator getting out of a vehicle and approaching an older black man, prosecutors said.
“How’s it going, man?” Barrett is heard saying as the camera pans to the victim, according to the criminal complaint.
Then, there’s a loud smack and the victim drops to the ground. Barrett laughs and says “knockout” before driving off, the complaint says.
Barrett later showed the video to the couple, not knowing the male witness was an off-duty arson investigator with the city of Katy. The couple flagged down a police officer near the scene, who interviewed Barrett and then obtained a search warrant for his phone.
In one of the videos, Barrett allegedly described his motivation: “The plan is to see if I were to hit a black person, would this be nationally televised?”
The video evidence was eventually traced to the victim, the complaint said.
Parnham said Barrett has bipolar disorder and is taking lithium while in the detention facility.
“When you start peeling back the layers of the onion and look at the mindset behind the action you soon realize there's a mental issue," Parnham told The Associated Press Thursday. He added that the family “feels horribly sympathetic” for the victim.
Barrett could see up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted. Parnham said Barett's next court date had not yet been set.
The wave in knockout game attacks, including in Chicago, St. Louis and New York, has led community groups and politicians to condemn the random violence. An incident in Syracuse, N.Y., in May even turned deadly, after 51-year-old Michael Daniels was found fatally punched and stomped upon. Two teens have been charged in the case.
An Illinois lawmaker is looking to deter similar attacks by increasing the penalty in his state. The Knockout Assault Prevention Act, introduced last week by Republican State Rep. Dwight Kay, would make the crime a Class 2 felony punishable by three to seven years in prison. In addition, a suspect at least 15 years old could be tried as an adult.
The notoriety of such assaults has also led to knockout game hoaxes. A 23-year-old St. Louis woman and her boyfriend were charged with falsifying a police report this month after she claimed a group of young men punched her in the eye.
But authorities say she made up the story to cover for her boyfriend, who had hit her in the face.