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Three white Mississippi men pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes Thursday in connection with the 2011 beating death of an African-American man in Jackson, the Justice Department announced.

Deryl Dedmon, John Aaron Rice and Dylan Butler each admitted to conspiracy and violating the 2009 federal hate-crimes law in last June’s killing of James Craig Anderson. They face sentences of up to life in prison and $250,000 in fines, federal prosecutors said.

The 19-year-old Dedmon had already pleaded guilty to state murder and hate-crime charges Wednesday in a state court and was sentenced to life in prison. Rice, 19, and Butler, 20, made their initial appearances with Dedmon in federal court Thursday morning.

The men are among the first defendants to be prosecuted under the federal hate-crime statute that President Barack Obama signed in 2009 and the first to be prosecuted in a fatal attack, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a statement on Thursday’s pleas.

“The Department of Justice will vigorously pursue those who commit racially motivated assaults and will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that those who commit such acts are brought to justice,” Perez said. “And I note that our investigation in this matter is ongoing.”

Life sentence in Mississippi hate-crime case

In court Thursday, all three admitted to harassing and assaulting African-Americans on several occasions in the weeks before Anderson’s death, hurling beer bottles, firing slingshots and driving at them with cars, prosecutors said. They targeted people they believed to be drunk or homeless, believing them less likely to report the attacks.

They are also expected to testify against other teens implicated in Anderson’s killing, two sources close to the proceedings told CNN.

They admitted to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, named for the victims of two 1998 killings that shocked the country. Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager, died after being kidnapped, beaten and left tied to a fence, while Byrd was a black man dragged to death in Texas by white supremacists.

Anderson’s death prompted several large marches and prayer vigils in Jackson, a city of about 537,000 people. At his state plea hearing, Dedmon told the court that his crimes were the result of being “young and dumb, ignorant and full of hatred.”

Courtesy Of  CNN.COM

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