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Killer serves less than 4 years in Mississippi 'hate crime'

MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS 
 Terry Magee Jr., who pleaded to killing and kidnapping James McCoy, walked free from prison in less than four years.
MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS Terry Magee Jr., who pleaded to killing and kidnapping James McCoy, walked free from prison in less than four years.

A Rankin County deputy found James McCoy's body in the middle of Mississippi 43.

It was after 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 11, 2003, when he saw the 40-year-old African-American lying on his back in a pool of blood. There was no pulse.

Whoever had killed him had fled. The deputy found a knife next to the body and stretched tape to secure the crime scene.

What experts say was an obvious hate crime went unreported, and today the man convicted of killing McCoy -- Terry Magee Jr. of Brandon -- walks free.

So how does a man convicted in a homicide serve less than four years when many in Mississippi face decades behind bars for nonviolent offenses?

"It just don't make no sense," said McCoy's 72-year-old mother, Ethel Tribble. "I don't wish it on no mother. Whenever you lose a child, part of you goes in the grave with him. It's never the same."

Deputies and the Mississippi Highway Patrol interviewed the white men identified as perpetrators.

They insisted to authorities that threatening calls had been made at the same time a Ford Thunderbird drove by their home.

They said when a gang of them stopped the Thunderbird, McCoy exited.

James Rodney McNeer, a part of that gang, told troopers he knocked McCoy down -- only for McCoy to reach into his front pocket and pull out a knife.

McNeer said McCoy chased him twice around the car, cutting him with the knife and saying, "I'm gonna kill you, you son of a b----."

McNeer said he yelled, "Somebody get him, somebody shoot him, something. He's fixing to kill me."

Chad Hamilton Magee, the youngest at 16, told troopers that McCoy was slinging the knife and charging toward them.

He said his father, Terry Magee Jr., told McCoy, "Stop, I have a gun."

He said McCoy refused, saying, "Shoot me, mother f-----."

Only then, he said, did his father fire at McCoy.

Trying to help a friend

It all started when Megan Watkins was kicked out of her home.

The then 19-year-old white girl happened to be dating someone black.

Nora Donald, the African-American woman driving the Thunderbird that night, told troopers Watkins had been staying with her because "she didn't have nowhere else to go."

Stephanie Jones, a white woman also in the Thunderbird that night, explained, "We was trying to help a friend. I got her clothes."

In the meantime, Watkins' uncle, Terry Magee Jr., came and seized her car.

Donald said in her statement that Watkins' family told her she could get her car back.

"We dropped her off at the stop sign," Donald said. "We didn't even go in the driveway. She told us to come back in 10 minutes to pick her up in case she didn't get the car, and she would meet us out at the stop sign."

Allen McDaniel, who was with the gang that stopped the Thunderbird that night, originally told troopers that McCoy had been killed in self-defense.

He explained what he said really happened:

After Terry Magee Jr. spotted the Thunderbird pulling away, he fired his gun.

Watkins yelled out, "Mr. Terry, it's me."

Magee chided his niece. "You're a n----- lover, and I don't want you around me."

She was holding a 16-ounce Budweiser, slurring her words, McDaniel said. "She was crying. She didn't want Mr. Terry mad at her, I guess, for being with these other people."

The truth was "I think everybody was a little intoxicated," he said.

More than 10 minutes after dropping off Watkins, the Thunderbird reappeared, only to be fired at a second time.

When someone in the Thunderbird telephoned to check on Watkins, McNeer grabbed the cellphone. He called them "blue gum n-----s," saying if they showed up, "we are going to beat the s--- out of you."

Chased and cornered

Fearing Watkins might be in harm's way, Donald told troopers she returned, slowed down when she reached the stop sign and noticed someone.

"It was a boy chasing on foot, firing at the car," she said. "He fired several shots at me."

She stomped on the gas pedal and headed the opposite way on Mississippi 43, with vehicles speeding behind her.

Glancing down the highway, she saw a red Chevy Avalanche pull across the highway, blocking her way.

She slammed on her brakes. Within seconds, two trucks and a Mitsubishi Eclipse boxed her in.

A red laser light from a gun shone on her, on McCoy's girlfriend, Jones, and then on Donald's boyfriend, Willie Brooks, who bolted from the car to call 911.

Terry Magee Jr. rammed his pickup into the front of her Thunderbird.

Upset at the damage, she flew out, yelling, "Do y'all know that y'all can go to jail for what y'all have done? I am going to call the police, and y'all are going to be in a whole bunch of trouble."

Someone yelled out, "Shut the f--- up, b----," vowing that if she didn't, she would end up in the same shape as her car.

Her cousin, McCoy, emerged from the back seat of the Thunderbird to protect her.

McDaniel told troopers he pointed the gun's red laser light at those in the Thunderbird.

The gun belonged to Terry Magee Jr., and McDaniel said he handed the 9mm gun back to Magee after they surrounded those in the Thunderbird.

In addition to Chad Magee and 38-year-old McNeer, others present that night included Magee's 18-year-old son, Terry III (known as "Bubba"), and 32-year-old Billy Pinter.

McDaniel said McNeer led the chase after the Thunderbird, and when McCoy emerged, McNeer knocked him down.

When McCoy began to get back up, those present yelled out, "Get your hands out of your pockets."

McNeer shoved him down again, McDaniel said.

All McCoy seemed to want to do was to "get the hell out," he said.

He quoted McNeer as telling Terry Magee Jr., "He's got a knife. Shoot him."

McDaniel said Magee walked up to McCoy and put the gun to his head.

"Shoot him," McNeer said. "Shoot him."

McDaniel said Magee pressed the gun against the head of McCoy, who said, "Shoot me, mother f-----."

He said Magee backed away 10 feet or so and shot McCoy, the bullet striking his heart.

Despite the fatal shot, Magee hopped on McCoy, pressed the gun against his throat and yelled out something, McDaniel said.

Asked if McCoy ever swung a knife at any of those present, McDaniel said no.

"Did McCoy ever take his hands out of his pocket?" Trooper Wayne Wasson asked.

"No."

Left to die

Donald said she saw her cousin, McCoy, beaten badly by "about three different white guys."

When she helped McCoy back up, he smarted off at his attackers, she said. "Then one of the guys, the one with the gun, said something back to him."

She saw a red laser beam aimed at McCoy's ear. "The next thing I know, I hear a gunshot."

Her cousin crumpled to the ground.

"I tried to pick him up," she said. "His eyes rolled back in his head, and he wouldn't answer me."

She fumed at what happened.

"They let my cousin lay down and bleed like a dog in the street," she said. "I don't understand why that people think that is OK."

After the killing, a state trooper visited Tribble, saying they would do something about McCoy's murder.

"You're going to sweep it under the rug," she said she replied.

McCoy became the second son she had to bury. The first came in 1981 when the Army called to say her oldest son, then 18, had drowned.

The trooper vowed to do all he could and turned the files over to Rankin County District Attorney David Clark.

Nearly a year later, in September 2004, a grand jury indicted McNeer, McDaniel, Terry Magee Jr., and his sons Bubba and Chad, charging them all with four counts of kidnapping for holding those in the Thunderbird hostage and for murder.

Pinter, whom McDaniel said stayed in the car, wasn't charged.

Despite these charges, the case languished, and the years passed.

"I called anybody I thought could help," Tribble said.

No one did.

In 2007, the office of Clark, who is now deceased, agreed with a defense motion to dismiss all the murder and kidnapping charges, saying "that facts of this case make it improbable that a conviction would ensue if the case were tried, and that the witnesses have scattered and would be more than difficult to locate, and the other defendants have been dismissed. The Court therefore finds that the charges against Terry Magee Jr. should be dismissed."

Seeking justice

After taking office in 2008, District Attorney Michael Guest visited Tribble, telling her he was reopening the case.

Guest told The Clarion-Ledger he felt strongly about pursuing the killing because "there's no statute of limitations on murder."

In 2010, the Rankin County grand jury indicted Terry Magee Jr. for murder and four counts of kidnapping. His two sons, Bubba and Chad, along with McDaniel and Pinter, were indicted for four counts of kidnapping.

A year later, Terry Magee Jr. pleaded guilty to manslaughter and one count of kidnapping. Under the plea bargain, he received 10 years in prison.

"We were able to start over and at least get a manslaughter conviction," Guest said.

Magee entered prison June 17, 2011, and he went free less than four years later on earned release time.

Contacted about the case, his lawyer, Ross Barnett Jr. of Jackson, said, "I've heard from his wife he's out. I don't know what he's doing."

Pinter had his kidnapping charge dismissed, and the other three pleaded guilty to kidnapping as part of a plea bargain in which each would serve only a single day in jail.

Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who successfully prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan's 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church, said there is no question McCoy's slaying was a hate crime.

Guest said in addition to the age of the McCoy case, there were other problems, including the death of one witness and discrepancies among other witnesses.

Those in the car with McCoy identified the triggerman as Chad Magee, who insisted on his innocence and passed a polygraph.

Years later, he appeared on the district attorney's office "Most Wanted" list, facing charges of aggravated assault, house burglary and shoplifting.

Under a plea bargain, he received 1,275 days in prison -- 1,274 days more than he received for his involvement in McCoy's kidnapping.

Comfort in Scriptures

Since her son was killed, "I've been at a loss," Tribble said. "He was my right hand. He would put up curtains for me ...."

She wiped away a tear.

She said she believes if her son had been white and his killers black, punishment would have been swift and severe.

Her only consolation, she said, has been the Scripture, "A man reaps what he sows."

Somewhere, some time, "before they cross over, they're going to pay," she said.

After McCoy's killing, McNeer put a gun to his head and blew off half his face, her husband, Robert, said.

McNeer survived the suicide attempt only to become a victim at the hands of 21-year-old Travis Payne, who beat him to death in 2010 in a drunken argument.

Payne's sentence? Twenty years in prison.

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