Man pleads guilty to federal hate crime for cross burning

This image provided by the Mississippi Department of Corrections shows Axel Cox, 24, of Gulfport, Miss., who was charged with violating the Fair Housing Act after he chose to burn a cross in front of a Black family because of their race, pleaded guilty in federal court to a hate crime, the Justice Department announced Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. (Mississippi Department of Corrections via AP) (Uncredited)

JACKSON, Miss. – A Mississippi man who burned a cross in his front yard to intimidate his Black neighbors pleaded guilty to a hate crime in federal court, the Justice Department announced Friday.

Axel Cox, 24, of Gulfport, was charged with violating the Fair Housing Act over the December 2020 incident, according to court records.

The Justice Department said Cox gathered supplies from his home, put together a wooden cross in his front yard and propped it up so his Black neighbors could see it. He then doused it with motor oil and lit it on fire. He also addressed the family with racially derogatory language, records say.

A grand jury indicted him in September. Cox's attorney, Jim Davis, filed a notice of intent for him to plead guilty to the cross burning on Nov. 22, 2022. Davis did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Davis told the Biloxi Sun Herald that Cox was reacting to his neighbors allegedly shooting and killing his dog. He added that his client acted “totally inappropriately.”

The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups have long practiced cross burnings to intimidate Black and Jewish people.

“Burning a cross invokes the long and painful history, particularly in Mississippi, of intimidation and impending physical violence against Black people,” said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute those who use racially motivated violence to drive people away from their homes or communities.”

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 9. Cox faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 or both, according to the Justice Department

The Gulfport Police Department and the FBI Jackson Field Office investigated the case.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.