Maryland cross-burner sent to prison for intimidating racially mixed family

Brandon Sheldon, who was convicted in January 1996, of civil rights violations for his role in a cross-burning in Prince George's County, Maryland on October 17, 1991, was sentenced to 24 months incarceration without parole, two years of supervised release, and a $75 special assessment.

Sheldon was convicted after his three and a half day trial in January. The jury found him guilty of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a racially mixed family after hearing evidence of his involvement in a cross-burning near the family's home on Armstrong Lane in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. They deliberated for less than one full day before returning a verdict. Sheldon was convicted of conspiring with John Boyd, Jr. to burn the cross, in violation of Title 18, Section 241 of the United States Code.

The Indictment alleged that Sheldon and Boyd constructed the five-and-one-half-foot tall wooden cross, transported the cross near the home of Joan Bennett, who is Black, her sons, and Douglas Monahan, who is White, and set the cross on fire. The Indictment alleged that they burned the cross in order to "injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate" the racially mixed family in their exercise of federally protected housing rights.

The second Count of the Indictment charged Sheldon with burning the cross to intimidate and attempt to intimidate the racially mixed family, in violation of Title 42, Section 3631(b) of the United States Code, which prohibits use of force or threat of force to injure, intimidate, or interfere with housing rights. Sheldon received a six month term of incarceration on this count, to run concurrently to the sentence on the first count.

A leader of the Ku Klux Klan testified against Sheldon, saying that Sheldon had been thrown out of the Klan because of his role in the cross-burning. He told Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Farquhar that Klan members are only allowed to participate in ceremonial "cross-lightings."

Sheldon's ex-wife also testified against him, describing his racist tattoos for the prosecution. She told the court that Sheldon has the words white power and skins tattooed on his body as well as a swastika.

The prosecution also presented evidence of a prior incident where Boyd, Sheldon's accomplice, accosted an African-American woman in a public place and called her a "nigger."

Sheldon's attorney, Richard C. Bittner, had argued that Sheldon was intoxicated at the time of the cross-burning and did not act with criminal intent. He also claimed that Sheldon had a legal right to be where he was because Boyd was a tenant farmer on the property adjacent to the property where the Bennetts and Monahan lived. Bittner claimed Boyd had invited Sheldon onto the property.

Bittner told reporters, "On your own property, you have a [First Amendment] right to be offensive."

Boyd pleaded guilty on October 31, 1994, to charges brought under Title 42, Section 3631 of the United States Code relating to the same cross-burning.

"The perseverance in the prosecution of this case shows that hate crimes will not be tolerated in the State of Maryland," stated U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia, whose office handled the case.

"No Americans should live in fear of being attacked because of their race," said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval L. Patrick. "We will not tolerate acts of racial violence against members of our society."

Sheldon was originally charged by the State of Maryland with violating the state statute outlawing cross-burnings for his conduct on October 17, 1991. However, the charges in that case were dismissed on the grounds that the state law outlawing cross-burnings violated Sheldon's First Amendment rights. Dismissal of the state charges against Sheldon was affirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals on August 27, 1993.

Bittner said that the state of Maryland decided to make a "political example" of Sheldon after the cross-burning law was declared unconstitutional. He went on to say that he plans to appeal Sheldon's conviction.