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Mississippi Man Pleads Guilty to Federal Hate Crime After Burning a Cross in His Front Yard to Intimidate Black Neighbors

Axel Cox

Axel Charles Cox’s jail and prison photos. (Harrison County Sheriff’s Department, Mississippi Department of Corrections)

A Mississippi man pleaded guilty to A federal hate crime after burning a cross in his front yard to intimidate his Black neighbors.

Axel Charles Cox faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, up to a $250,000 fine, or both.

Nearly two years ago on Dec. 3, 2020, Cox made threatening and racially derogatory remarks toward his neighbors, put together a wooden cross on his front lawn, doused it with motor oil and set it on fire. Federal prosecutors say that Cox, 24, admitted that he did so because of his neighbors’ race and the fact that they had been occupying the house next to his.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, the first Black woman to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, noted that the burning cross did not happen in an historical vacuum.

“Burning a cross invokes the long and painful history, particularly in Mississippi, of intimidation and impending physical violence against Black people,” Clarke wrote in a statement. “The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute those who use racially-motivated violence to drive people away from their homes or communities.”

On Thursday, Cox entered into a plea deal that has him admitting to one of the two counts of the indictment. The hate crime statute punishes those who uses force, threatens force, or intimidates based on their race, sex, or national origin because they were renting or occupying a “dwelling.”

Cox already had been serving an eight-year sentence for drug possession and receiving stolen property, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

At Cox’s arraignment in September, prosecutors obtained a warrant to transfer the convict from state prison to federal court to face his hate crime charges. The cross-burning incident occurred some 17 months before his unrelated lockup.

Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division emphasized that people “should be free from threats and intimidation.

“The FBI and our law enforcement partners will continue to bring to justice anyone who violates the federal laws designed to ensure civil rights are protected,” Quesada said.

U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca, from the Southern District of Mississippi, praised the collaboration between local and federal authorities.

“We will continue to work with and for the good people of Mississippi to eradicate such racist intimidation,” LaMarca said.

Cox’s attorney did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

During his Senate confirmation hearings in February 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed to make civil rights a focal point of his leadership of the Justice Department — and provided a history lesson to illustrate that point.

“Celebrating DOJ’s 150th year reminds us of the origins of the Department, which was founded during Reconstruction, in the aftermath of the Civil War, to secure the civil rights promised by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments,” Garland said in his opening remarks. “The first Attorney General appointed by President Grant to head the new Department led it in a concerted battle to protect black voting rights from the violence of white supremacists, successfully prosecuting hundreds of cases against members of the Ku Klux Klan.”

One of Garland’s earliest and most famous cases as a prosecutor was the Oklahoma City bombing case, which he reflected upon as an example of white supremacist-inspired violence.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."