08/11/08 — Suspect in cross burning charged based on current N.C. law stipulation

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Suspect in cross burning charged based on current N.C. law stipulation

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on August 11, 2008 1:41 PM

Spokespersons for the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office both declined to confirm any involvement in a Dudley cross burning case.

But a high-ranking local authority said a Federal Bureau of Investigation liaison has been involved since the very first days of investigation.

While it isn't clear if Dixon Steward, 38, will eventually be charged in federal court, other similar federal cases show the punishment for the crime can be severe.

In 2006, the Tampa, Fla.-based division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported 50-year-old Neal Chapman Coombs of Hastings faced up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

In North Carolina, burning a cross is still a misdemeanor, but the penalty might stiffen soon.

State lawmakers ended a session in July with a decision to enforce stiffer penalties for burning a cross or hanging a noose, supported by the Legislative Black Caucus, among others.

The bill, awaiting a signature from Gov. Mike Easley, would make it a felony to display a burning cross or hanging noose.

It is not clear what punishment Steward might eventually face if convicted of the cross burning, or if he would be "grandfathered" out of the new felony-level law.

Steward was initially charged with misdemeanor racial intimidation and jailed under a $500 bond. He was later jailed under $10,000 bond after making more threats against the bi-racial couple who live across the street from him.

Charlotte FBI spokesperson Amy Thoreson said she was unable to "confirm or deny" an investigation into the cross burning.

"We work very closely with local agencies, and also state agencies, so if it's something that they would like us to be involved in, there are many times they ask us to get involved," Ms. Thoreson said.

Robin Zier, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Eastern District, said she also could not make any comments about any specific investigation.

"I don't know if a local agency would come to us directly, or whether they would have to siphon it through a federal agency," Ms. Zier said. "Every case is a little bit different."

On the FBI's Web site, cross burning is a hate crime that is specifically mentioned.

"Crimes of hatred and prejudice -- from lynchings to cross burnings to vandalism of synagogues -- are a sad fact of American history," the site states.

The FBI Web site entry notes that the term "hate crime" entered the public vernacular in the 1980s, when "Skinheads" began perpetrating "a wave of bias-related crime."