Family ready for hate crime to be tried

South Bend Tribune/November 20, 2001
By Tim Logan

Elkhart -- It's been two years since Sasezley Richardson died.

Two years since Jason Powell and Alex Witmer were charged with killing Richardson -- an act, prosecutors say, the men committed just because Richardson was black.

And, two years for those who knew the then-19-year-old and have been wrestling with their emotions while waiting for the trial of one of the alleged killers.

"It needs to have closure," said Nedra Ray, a former teacher of Richardson's. "This is not fair to his family and to the people who care about him."

That closure may come before too much longer.

Last week, Elkhart Superior Court Judge Ben Pfaff scheduled Witmer's trial for March 4, 2002. Witmer, now 20, may face a death sentence for his alleged role in the Nov. 17, 1999, shooting. Richardson died three days later.

Powell has pleaded guilty to pulling the trigger and will testify at the trial that Witmer urged him to do it. Powell, now 21, reportedly wanted to earn membership into the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist group which started as a prison gang and to which Witmer belonged, by killing a minority.

In exchange for Powell's plea and testimony, prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty request, but it still holds for Witmer.

Both men were originally to stand trial in March 2000, just four months after the killing, but delays have been numerous. Witmer's case has seen three judges, two defense attorneys and numerous continuances. But it now appears the trial will begin March 4.

Deborah Stout will be there.

Stout is Richardson's mother. She lives in Memphis, Tenn., and has been closely following the proceedings for two years, since the night she learned her son had been shot.

She receives updates from friends and family in Elkhart, where she lived for 10 years. While Stout said she understands that trials like this take time, the delays still worry her.

"I'm afraid that (Witmer) is going to get off and he's not going to pay for the crime he committed," she said in a telephone interview last week.

However, death penalty cases tend to take longer than two years to get to a courtroom. In this state, the average time between a death penalty request and a trial is 17 months, according to Paula Sites of the Indiana Public Defender's Council. But two judges, Terry Shewmaker and Gene Duffin, have recused themselves because of conflicts of interest, which has contributed to slowing the progress.

"I don't think the families are given much consideration when they prolong it and drag it out," said the Rev. John Coleman, a family friend who has been updating Stout on the proceedings. "But it's one of those things. We're in the system and you have to deal with it."

Nonetheless, Coleman said, time has dulled the impact of a race-based killing that two years ago shocked this diverse city.

"It happened, and two years later we've forgotten about it," he said.

Patches of memory remain, however.

At the intersection of Herrold Avenue and Hawthorne Drive, where Richardson was shot, there is a little memorial to the youth. A black and white ribbon stays tied around the street sign there. A candle, long since burned out, sits in the grass, next to a couple of dolls.

At the Learning Is For Everyone Program, an alternative school where Richardson was enrolled, there is a scholarship fund in his name. Each year, dozens of students receive $40, to pay for the GED exam. Richardson was scheduled to take the exam Nov. 18, the day after he was shot.

"This is keeping his memory alive," said Ray, who helps run the program. "Every time someone gets their GED through this, it's like he got his."

The city is trying to preserve Richardson's memory, too. Today is the city's second annual Hate Crimes Awareness Day; it will host a talk tonight by Floyd Cochran, a former member of the neo-Nazi movement who tries to raise awareness about white supremacist groups."I think as we approach the trial we need to remember that hate crimes happen in Elkhart," said Ellen Krulewitch, the city's human relations director.

Two years later, people are still struggling to understand why that is, and where the hate that spawned this one came from.

And two years later, Stout still struggles with the pain of losing a son. Time has eased some of that pain, Stout said, but there is still a gaping hole in her life where Sasezley used to be.

"It's just not the same because there's something missing," she said. "It's heartbreaking."

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