AP: JACKSON, Miss, By Michael Goldberg — Two former Mississippi sheriff’s deputies were sentenced to years behind bars Tuesday for torturing two Black men after a neighbor complained that the men were staying in a home with a white woman.

Hunter Elward, 31, was sentenced to about 20 years in prison, while Jeffrey Middleton, the leader of the so-called “Goon Squad” that abused the men, was given a 17.5-year prison sentence. Four other former law enforcement officers who admitted to torturing Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker are set to be sentenced later this week.

Before sentencing Elward, U.S. District Judge Tom Lee called the former deputy’s actions “egregious and despicable,” and said a “sentence at the top of the guidelines range is justified — is more than justified.” He continued: “It’s what the defendant deserves. It’s what the community and the defendant’s victims deserve.”

In January 2023, the group of six burst into a Rankin County home without a warrant and assaulted Jenkins and Parker with stun guns, a sex toy and other objects. Elward admitted to shoving a gun into Jenkins’ mouth and firing in a “mock execution” that went awry.

The terror began on Jan. 24, 2023, with a racist call for extrajudicial violence when a white person phoned Rankin County Deputy Brett McAlpin and complained that two Black men were staying with a white woman at a house in Braxton. McAlpin told Deputy Christian Dedmon, who texted a group of white deputies so willing to use excessive force they called themselves “The Goon Squad.”

Once inside, they handcuffed Jenkins and his friend Parker and poured milk, alcohol and chocolate syrup over their faces. They forced them to strip naked and shower together to conceal the mess. They mocked the victims with racial slurs and shocked them with stun guns.

After Elward shot Jenkins in the mouth, they devised a coverup that included planting drugs and a gun. False charges stood against Jenkins and Parker for months. Jenkins suffered a lacerated tongue and broken jaw.

Last March, months before federal prosecutors announced charges in August, an investigation by The Associated Press linked some of the deputies to at least four violent encounters with Black men since 2019 that left two dead and another with lasting injuries.

Jenkins is a musician, and his injuries have prevented him from singing as he used to. He also said he has trouble speaking and eating. Parker said he relives the episode in his nightmares.

Both men, who were sitting in the front row, called for the “stiffest of sentences.” Their attorney, Malik Shabazz, said they were too traumatized to speak in court, and he read statements on their behalf.

“I am hurt. I am broken,” Jenkins wrote in his statement. “They tried to take my manhood from me. They did some unimaginable things to me, and the effects will linger for the rest of my life.”

Elward, who wore a dark blue jumpsuit with tape obscuring the name of the facility where he is housed, said before being sentenced that he wouldn’t make excuses. He turned to address Jenkins and Parker and looked at them directly.

“I don’t want to get too personal. I see you every night, and I can’t go back and do what’s right,” Elward said. “I am so sorry for what I did.”

Parker then stood up and said, “I forgive you.”

Elward’s attorney, Joe Hollomon, said his client first witnessed Rankin County deputies turn a blind eye to misconduct in 2017.

“It became the new norm, it became institutional,” Hollomon said. “Hunter was initiated into a culture of corruption at the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office.”

During a speech Tuesday at the University of Georgia, FBI director Christopher Wray spoke about the federal investigation into the “unspeakable crimes” committed by the six former law enforcement officers in Mississippi.

“It’s hard to imagine a more atrocious set of civil rights violations than those carried out by these guys,” Wray said, according to prepared remarks. “But on the flip side, it’s hard to imagine more important work than investigating those crimes and seeking justice for the victims.”

Elward was also sentenced for his role in an assault on a white man that took place weeks before Jenkins and Parker were tortured. For the first time Tuesday, prosecutors identified the victim as Alan Schmidt and read a statement from him detailing what happened to him on December 4, 2022.

During a traffic stop that night, Schmidt said Rankin County deputies accused him of possessing stolen property. They pulled him from the car and beat him. Then, Dedmon forced him to his knees and tried to insert his genitals into Schmidt’s mouth, as Elward watched.

“I pray every day that I can forgive them one day and hopefully forget the humiliation and the evil physical and sexual assault that I endured,” Schmidt wrote. “I know that I’m not their only victim, and I pray for each victim that has crossed paths with the Goon Squad members.”

The officers charged with torturing Parker and Jenkins include Elward, Middleton, McAlpin, Dedmon and Daniel Opdyke of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department and Joshua Hartfield, a Richland police officer. They have pleaded guilty to numerous federal and state charges.

All six former officers are facing potentially decades-long prison sentences on the federal charges. Time served for separate convictions at the state level will run concurrently with the potentially longer federal sentences.

The majority-white Rankin County is just east of the state capital, Jackson, home to one of the highest percentages of Black residents of any major US city.

The officers warned Jenkins and Parker to “stay out of Rankin County and go back to Jackson or ‘their side’ of the Pearl River”, court documents say, referencing an area with higher concentrations of Black residents.

For months, Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey, whose deputies committed the crimes, said little about the episode. After the officers pleaded guilty in August, Bailey said the officers had gone rogue and promised to change the department. Jenkins and Parker have called for his resignation, and they have filed a $400 million civil lawsuit against the department.

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 at @mikergoldberg.

Top Feature Photo: Michael Corey Jenkins, right, stands with his mother Mary Jenkins, as they Eddie Tyrell Parker outside the courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi Tuesday, March 19, 2024 – AP Photo Rogelio V Solis