- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

HOUSTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) — A Texas jury has awarded $24 million to a black family to punish five men who burned a cross in their yard and to send a strong message.

The five cross burners have already been sentenced to prison in the criminal case but the civil verdict may also carry a big price although some of the defendants claim to be indigent.

"We wanted to send a big message," jury forewoman Shirlene Williams told the Houston Chronicle after Wednesday's verdict.

The federal court jury found that Matthew Marshall, Corydon Parsons, Paul Bergeron, Darin White and Wayne Mathews, all 23, were guilty of negligence, defamation and malice.

The five were charged in connection with a cross burning nearly three years ago on the front yard of Dwayne and Maria Ross at Katy, a small town just west of Houston.

Although some of the defendants say they are indigent, the civil verdict could bring claims against their insurance carriers, according to the Ross family attorney, Benjamin L. Hall III.

"Eight conscientious Texans set the price for anyone thinking to burn a cross on a black family's yard — and that price is over $24 million," he told the Chronicle.

"I am as certain that this judgment will be paid as I was certain we would win the case."

The jurors also found Mathews' father, Kent Mathews, negligent for allowing the men to drink and assemble the cross at his home. The jury ruled that his negligence was not the cause of the incident but he remains liable because they were found guilty.

The Marshall family had already reached a $490,000 settlement with the Ross family before the latest verdict so they won't pay any of the new award.

Charlie Parker, the attorney for White, Bergeron and Mathews, argued during the trial that the five defendants had already been punished. He said his clients are indigent and cannot afford an appeal.

The Ross family said the verdict was a warning.

"This sends a strong message to the Katy community — to communities throughout the country — that respect for others is not only taught in school but has to be taught at home," Dwayne Ross told the Chronicle.

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