08:31 AM CDT on Monday, June 29, 2009
Matthew Pleasant / Houma Courier
It was a moment Vanessa Knight thought might never come.
Seated in district court, she watched as jurors issued convictions this past week for two men charged with committing a hate crime against her husband, Dedric. The verdict came two years after charges against the men were dropped when her husband, a welder, was offshore and unable to appear for an initial trial attempt.
The convictions were satisfying for both. But they meant even more to Vanessa Knight, who, after the charges were dropped, pushed to see the men accused of beating her husband because he is black stand trial.
“What were we going to do, just roll over and forget about it?” said Knight, 40.
When her husband was attacked in the parking lot of Bayou Express near Main Street and Howard Avenue Sept. 15, 2006, he reported to the police four white men had held him at gunpoint, shouted racial epithets at him and him struck him in the face.
Police detectives found no motive behind the attack besides that Knight is black, according to testimony from last week’s trial.
Two men, Peter Billiot, 19, and Dustin Boudwin, 27, were convicted shortly after in the beating. Two others, Dwayne Racine, 32, and Charles Brunet Jr., 26, of Houma were arrested and scheduled for a June 2007 trial.
Vanessa Knight, who lives in Dularge, said she learned from reading a newspaper the charges had been dropped because she and her husband hadn’t shown up for the trial, she said. Dedric Knight was working offshore and learned the news two months later.
Neither she nor her husband were contacted to attend court that day, she said.
“My husband could have come in for something that important,” she said. “That was like a slap in the face.”
She contacted the Terrebonne District Attorney’s Office and the local branch of the NAACP and gave interviews to radio stations and newspapers to spread the news, all in an effort to restart a prosecution effort.
“I knew one day justice had to be served,” she said. “What happened could happen to anyone. I had to fight for what was right.”
The District Attorney’s Office refiled the charges for Racine and Brunet in August, and both were arrested by that fall. District Attorney Joe Waitz said he wanted to prosecute because allowing them to go free without a trial may have sent a message of tolerance for hate crimes.
“It’s a very blatant case of hatred for a black man,” he said. “It’s something that I will never tolerate. If it ever happens again, we’ll take the same position.”
Vanessa Knight was determined to see Racine and Brunet go to trial, he said. He believes the hate crime statute, added to state law in 1997, has never been used in Terrebonne Parish.
“She wanted her day in court,” he said.
Jerome Boykin, president of the Terrebonne branch of the National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People, said racial hatred could be an element of many crimes.
“In the real world, it is there and will continue to be there,” Boykin said. “It’s changing slowly.”
The Knights watched the three-day trial unfold as several witnesses gave conflicting testimony.
The two men already convicted in the case recanted statements they made just after the attack to police and to a judge while under oath implicating Brunet and Racine. Relatives of the defendants testified that neither were at the scene of the attack.
By Thursday, the trial’s final day, it was unclear what role the defendants played in the attack. However, it was obvious some of the witnesses lied under oath, the couple said.
“I never thought it would be like that,” Vanessa Knight said. “An oath is an oath. I don’t play with God.”
Despite the testimony, both Knights said they remained confident the trial would result in a conviction. Nor did they question that the six-member jury selected appeared to be all white.
“When you look at the nature of this crime, it doesn’t matter,” Vanessa Knight said. “All they need to worry about are the facts and the truth.”
Juror Philip Aucoin, 67, of Houma was reluctant to talk about the hourlong deliberations, saying only that the decision was tough.
A poll of the jury after the trial showed the verdict was unanimous.
“There were so many conflicting stories going on, it was hard to decipher who was telling the truth,” he said. “We did what we thought was right.”
Dedric Knight, 38, said he is thankful his wife sought the prosecution during his often weeks-long trips offshore.
“She never gave up,” he said. “She kept going and going.”
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