A white Texas man faces federal hate-crime charges in an assault on a 79-year-old black man during a form of the "knockout game," prosecutors said Thursday.
Conrad Alvin Barrett, 27, is charged with violating the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Justice Department said. The complaint alleges that Barrett, of Katy, near Houston, attacked the man Nov. 24, recorded the assault on his cellphone and showed the video to others.
The complaint says Barrett made several videos, including one in which he identifies himself and another in which he makes a racial slur. It also says Barrett had been working up to playing the knockout game for about a week.
According to the complaint, Barrett says in the video that "the plan is to see if I were to hit a black person, would this be nationally televised?"
The knockout game has been known by a variety of names since it came to public notice about 1992. Essentially, a person abruptly attacks a defenseless victim, trying to knock him out with a single blow. Nothing is stolen, and no other crime is reported. Recently, incidents have taken on a deeper dimension because perpetrators record the attacks, often by cellphone video, and some of those videos go viral.
In one video that caused a sensation in late November, a white Pennsylvania teacher is seen walking in broad daylight when a sucker punch from a teenager among a group of black youths sends him to the concrete. The 50-year-old teacher recovered.
Random assaults on strangers simply to knock them out have been reported over the years in St. Louis; Washington, D.C.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Chicago, among other areas. In Jersey City, N.J., two 13-year-olds and a 14-year-old were charged as juveniles in the murder of Ralph Eric Santiago, 46, who was found Sept. 10 with his neck broken and his head wedged between iron fence posts. Prosecutors contend the youths were playing the knockout game.
In late May in Syracuse, a group of teenagers attempted to knock out a man with a single punch but wound up beating and stomping him to death, authorities say. A 16-year-old was convicted of manslaughter, and his 13-year-old codefendant pleaded guilty to assault. Both were sentenced to 18 months behind bars.
Earlier in May, Elex Murphy, now 20, was sentenced to life in prison plus 25 years for killing a Vietnamese immigrant in St. Louis as part the game in 2011.
In New York City, at least one man was recently charged with a hate-crime assault in one of several attacks against Jews in Brooklyn. African American civil rights leaders have condemned the attacks as cowardly.
"These kids are targeting innocent people and in many cases specifically targeting Jewish folks," the Rev. Al Sharpton, a television host and civil rights leader, said this month. He called on young people to stop playing the knockout game. "We would not be silent if it were the other way around, and we will not be silent now," he said. "This behavior is racist, period. And we will not tolerate it."
Many experts argue that such attacks are rare, if the game exists at all. But the incidents generate a high degree of fear because they are so random. The rapid dissemination of videos through social media can prompt copycat crimes, law enforcement officials say.
"Suspected crimes of this nature will simply not be tolerated," U.S. Atty. Kenneth Magidson of the Southern District of Texas said in a statement as he announced the charges against Barrett. "Evidence of hate crimes will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted with the assistance of all our partners to the fullest extent of the law."
Authorities accuse Barrett of hitting the elderly man with enough force that he immediately fell to the ground. They say Barrett laughed and said "knockout" as he ran to his vehicle and fled.
The victim had two jaw fractures and was hospitalized for several days, the Justice Department said.
"It is unimaginable in this day and age that one could be drawn to violently attack another based on the color of their skin," said Stephen L. Morris, FBI special agent in charge of the Houston division. "We remind all citizens that we are protected under the law from such racially motivated attacks, and encourage everyone to report such crimes to the FBI."
If convicted, Barrett could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.