Hate crime charged in woman's torture

February 6, 2008 5:28:48 PM PST
One of several white people charged in the suspected kidnapping, torture and sexual assault of a black woman has been indicted on a hate crime count, and two others have entered guilty pleas in the case.

Six people arrested after Megan Williams was rescued in September had been charged with counts that carry maximum life sentences, but until Tuesday's indictments no one had been charged with a hate crime. The issue has been a sore point among many of Williams' supporters.

Karen Burton, 46, of Chapmanville, was indicted Tuesday on charges of committing a hate crime, kidnapping and malicious wounding. Three others were indicted on counts including kidnapping, sexual assault and conspiracy.

Prosecutors say Williams, 20, was held captive for days at a trailer in Big Creek, where she was forced to eat animal feces, sexually assaulted and stabbed. She was rescued Sept. 8 after an anonymous caller alerted Logan County sheriff's deputies.

Logan County prosecutor Brian Abraham said Burton stabbed Williams in the ankle while saying, "This is what we do to n------ down here."

Karen Burton was "a little surprised" by the hate crime charge but was relieved that an earlier sexual assault count was not included in the indictment, said her attorney, Betty Gregory.

"She didn't want her children to think anything like that about her," Gregory said.

While noting that Burton has two biracial grandchildren in North Carolina whom "she dearly loves," Gregory said part of Burton's defense will be that she "has a significant history of child abuse from her own childhood."

Two other defendants - Burton's daughter, 23-year-old Alisha Burton, and 27-year-old George A. Messer - each pleaded guilty Friday and have agreed to testify against the others.

Messer and Alisha Burton, both of Chapmanville, were each sentenced to concurrent prison terms of 10 years for kidnapping and two to 10 years for assault during the commission of a felony, Abraham said. Williams and her family were consulted before plea deals were offered, he said.

The state hate crime count against Karen Burton is the first one legal scholars can remember being prosecuted in West Virginia.

"This one particular charge in this one particular case is winnable, and you can send the message that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated," said West Virginia University sociology professor Jim Nolan, who teaches a course on hate crimes.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and groups including Washington, D.C.-based Black Lawyers for Justice had pushed for hate-crime charges. Sharpton, who led a hate crimes rally in Charleston in December, said Wednesday that it was good one such charge was filed but added that there should have been more.

"They all engaged in hate crimes because they aided and abetted a hate crime," Sharpton said.

Abraham said other defendants used the same slur Karen Burton did, but the fact that Burton used it while stabbing Williams made her act more clearly a hate crime.

"The distinction was that we think that there was an affirmative statement as to Karen Burton's motivation when she allegedly said that to Megan Williams," Abraham said.

Abraham previously had refrained from filing hate-crime charges, saying they would be difficult because there was a pre-existing relationship. Williams filed domestic assault charges against one of the defendants, Bobby Brewster, in July.

Abraham also had noted that the 10-year maximum prison sentence for a hate crime conviction was low compared with the life term a kidnapping conviction could bring.

Indicted on felony counts with Karen Burton and Brewster were Danny Combs and Brewster's mother, Frankie Brewster. Another man not previously arrested was indicted Tuesday on a misdemeanor battery charge.

The defendants have denied the charges. Aside from Gregory, their lawyers did not immediately return phone calls on Wednesday.

The Associated Press generally does not identify suspected victims of sexual assault, but Williams and her mother, Carmen, agreed to release her name. Carmen Williams has said she wanted people to know what her daughter endured.

Megan Williams has taped a segment of Montel Williams' talk show that is to be broadcast Thursday.


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