James Laster admits to hate crime in Burke Burnett’s beating; LGBT advocate calls prosecutor’s decision to seek classification a victory
PARIS — One of three suspects in a brutal gay-bashing in East Texas last fall has been sentenced to eight years in prison.
James Mitchell Laster, 33, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, including a hate crime enhancement, and was sentenced to eight years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Thursday, Feb. 23, Lamar County District Attorney Gary Young confirmed this week.
Young said Laster “pled true” to the hate crime allegation, which means the aggravated assault charge was bumped up to a first-degree felony. Laster must serve a minimum of four years before he’s eligible for parole, Young said. He declined further comment.
Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, commended Young’s office for pursuing the case as a hate crime. Since Texas’ hate crimes law was passed in 2001, only about a dozen cases have been prosecuted using it, Smith said.
“He got it in a plea deal, but he still got someone to plead to a hate crimes designation, and that is a victory for using the law in the way that it was intended, and finding a prosecutor that will do so,” Smith said. “I consider that a victory. That’s important to the community, it’s important to the victim. I would contend that that’s more important than whether he got eight years or 10 years or 12 years. I’m pleased that the district attorney successfully put somebody away using the James Byrd Hate Crimes Act.”
Laster was one of three suspects charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault, in addition to hate crime enhancements, in the beating of 26-year-old Burke Burnett.
Burnett, who’s gay, suffered second-degree burns and needed more than 30 stitches following the attack at a private Halloween party in Reno, a small town just east of Paris and 100 miles northeast of Dallas, in the early morning hours of Oct. 30.
Burnett said his three attackers yelled anti-gay slurs as they sucker-punched him in the eye, stabbed him in the back and arm with a broken beer bottle, and threw him onto a lit burn barrel. The case made national news after graphic photos of Burnett’s injuries were posted on Dallas Voice’s website.
Burnett, who moved to Houston after the attack, couldn’t be reached for comment this week. The other two suspects in the attack, 25-year-old Micky Joe Smith of
Brookston, and 33-year-old Daniel Shawn Martin of Paris, are still awaiting trial, according to online Lamar County court records.
Don Haslam, a Paris attorney who’s representing Burnett in the case free of charge, said he discussed Laster’s sentence with his client this week.
“I think Burke is satisfied and he’s ready to move on to the next one,” Haslam said. “I think it’s fair to say that Burke is working consciously to put this behind him and move on, and successful prosecutions, including the [hate crimes] enhancements, are helping in that regard. He sees one down and two to go, and I think he’s ready to get all three done.”
Haslam agreed with Smith that the hate crimes designation was an important aspect of Laster’s plea.
“It’s a recognition that he was victimized because of his orientation, and I think that’s impotant to Burke,” Haslam said. “It’s important to us as a society to have a means of acknowledging that kind fo victimization.
“We’re embarrassed. I’m embarrassed and the community leadership is embarrassed,” he added. “It’s not how this community wants to be perceived, and it’s not how this community wants to be.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 2, 2012.