It was a hot Sunday morning last July when, right on schedule at 6:30 a.m., 61-year-old Johnny Lee Butts left his rural Mississippi home on his morning ritual, a 4-mile walk.
His neighbor, Otis Brooks, says Butts, a Sunday school teacher, waved as he passed his front door wearing a blue T-shirt.
Brooks remembers that his neighbor's skin tone was easily visible that morning. "You could tell he was black; you could see his arms." The point would become important later.
At nearly 7 a.m., about an hour after sunrise, three white teenagers were barreling down Panola County Mississippi Highway 310 in a white Monte Carlo. Two of the three teens later admitted they had been heavily drinking vodka and smoking marijuana all night. They were headed right toward Butts.
The two teen passengers said they and the driver, 18-year-old Matthew Whitten "Whit" Darby, spotted a man walking on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.
In statements to police and also in statements given to a grand jury, all obtained exclusively by CNN, the two teenagers, a then-15-year-old and 18-year-old Tony Hopper Jr., described what happened next.
"We see a walker on the side of the road. The complete left side of the road while we are on the complete right side of the road," the unidentified teen told a police lieutenant. "And I pointed out to say, 'watch out there is a walker there...'"
The unnamed teen continued his story: "Whit slightly turns the steering wheel and I saw him. 'Watch out, don't do nothing stupid' and then he just keep turning the steering wheel and eventually before we knew it he ran him straight over."
"He didn't slow down," Hopper said in a statement to a deputy sheriff.
The deputy asked: "He never hit his brakes?" Hopper replied: "No sir."
"Do you think he hit him on purpose?" asked the deputy.
"Yes, sir, I do," said Hopper.
Butts was hit from behind by the Monte Carlo, which was traveling somewhere between 55 and 70 mph, according to the documents. The car violently tossed him into the air, slamming him into the windshield, and his head struck the rear windshield. Butts' body hit the car with such force that the windshield collapsed into the car, bending the steering wheel back sharply. His leg was nearly severed.
Butts' body was found lying in the road, 172 feet from where the car hit him, the documents show.
Darby stopped his badly damaged car. His two passengers told police they got out and looked at Butts' pummeled body. Then they got back in the car and Darby sped away. Darby drove them to a house where they'd been partying, according to the documents, and the two teen passengers tried to sleep. Darby left the house alone and drove on to his grandmother's home.
Much later that day, the two teen passengers turned themselves in to police. Darby was arrested, telling police exactly what the two other teens said he would say, that he hit a deer. Darby denied he was drinking or smoking marijuana.
Right about now, the average "race realist" would be in a fury over the "they hit him because he was black" angle. Then again, this is Mississippi, a land where deep pools of racial antagonism lurk underneath a thin veneer of civility and Southern hospitality. It's a place where some people still think it's well within their rights to fuck with black Americans minding their own business just because they can.
Local law enforcement aren't willing to call this a hate crime, nevermind how there's plenty of evidence that points in that direction:
Champion told CNN that there is "no evidence at all" that Darby killed Butts out of hate, or as a hate crime. One reason a hate crime has been ruled out, Champion said, is that the teens in the car that morning could not see whether Johnny Butts was black or white.
But that is not true, according to the statements given by one of the teens in the car. In grand jury testimony obtained exclusively by CNN, Tony Hopper Jr., who was riding in the back seat, testified that he could see Johnny Butts was black before the teens hit him.
"Could you tell whether he was a black man or a white man before ya'll hit him?" Hopper was asked by the grand jury.
"Yes," Hopper said. "I could tell that he was black."
Hopper said the same thing on the day after the killing, when a sheriff's deputy asked him: "Did y'all know if he was black or white?"
Hopper answered: "I could tell he was a black man."
The 15-year-old passenger in the car, riding in the front seat, says in his statement he couldn't tell whether Butts was black or white. CNN's policy is not to identify juveniles in criminal cases.
The FBI is currently looking into the case. In the meantime, I'll leave you all with this wonderful gem from Panola County Sheriff Dennis L. Darby (no relation):
Sheriff Darby told CNN on the phone they had looked into the incident with the boys on the road and found nothing. "There's nothing to this report," he said, "it's all hearsay," and "he-said she-said." Sheriff Darby told CNN he would not give a copy of the report to the network. Then the sheriff warned CNN not to "stir up trouble in my county." He warned if the network pursued the story, "I'll be coming after you."
So much for Southern hospitality. You know, this place could do with a little "outside agitation." And Sheriff Darby could do with a nice, shiny federal boot wedged up his hindmost parts.