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Veteran federal Judge Tom Lee was the...

Veteran federal Judge Tom Lee was the right jurist for a tough job

By: Sid Salter - March 27, 2024

Sid Salter

  • Columnist Sid Salter says Judge Lee’s sentences in the “Goon Squad” cases were tough but fair and sent a long overdue message.

Mississippians watched along with the rest of the nation to see whether justice would prevail in the so-called “Goon Squad” cases in which six white former Rankin County law enforcement officers pleaded guilty to torturing and terrorizing two Black men for hours after breaking into a home without a warrant.

The victims, Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, were handcuffed, beaten, abused, and sexually assaulted with a sex toy. Jenkins had a gun placed into his mouth by one officer who pulled the trigger, leaving the victim with a lacerated tongue and a broken jaw.

Federal prosecutors argued that there was a strong racial component behind the attack. The defendants included former Rankin County Sheriff’s deputies Brett McAlpin, Christian Dedmon, Hunter Elward, Jeffrey Middleton, Daniel Opdyke and former Richland police officer Joshua Hartfield.

Their guilty pleas received, the six former lawmen faced Senior U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee, the 82-year-old veteran of a few months shy of 40 years on the federal bench in Mississippi’s Southern District, for sentencing. Over those years, Lee has managed any number of high-profile, high-pressure cases without flinching.

Judge Lee is the scion of a family of distinguished Mississippi jurists from Scott County. His brother, the late Roy Noble Lee Sr., was appointed to a vacancy on the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1976 and served until 1993 – serving as chief justice from 1987 to 1993.

The Lee brothers’ father, the late Percy Mercer Lee, preceded his sons as a lawyer, district attorney, Circuit Court judge, and later as a justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court from 1950 to 1965 – serving the final two years as chief justice.

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. described Roy Noble Lee’s leadership of the state’s highest court: “Some of the most significant advancements for the judicial branch of government during the 20th century were implemented under his leadership.

“He gave leadership to the enactment of legislation that created the Administrative Office of Courts and the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals, as he predicted, has been an excellent solution to allow timely disposition of cases and eliminate the backlog that had long plagued the appellate court.”

Judge Tom Lee, from the very beginning of his federal judicial tenure, has been called upon to render judgments in difficult, sensitive cases. Less than a year into his tenure, Lee heard the case of veteran State Sen. Tommy Brooks of Carthage, who was convicted after an 8-day trial of trying to extort $50,000 from the Mississippi Horse Racing Association for his legislative support on a bill to make pari-mutuel betting on horse racing legal in Tunica and Jackson counties.

Later in his career, Lee would oversee a Mississippi voting rights case that drew international headlines. In 2007, Lee ruled that activist Ike Brown, then the Noxubee County Democratic Party chairman, had violated the Voting Rights Act by engaging “in improper, and in some instances fraudulent conduct, and committed blatant violations of state election laws for the purpose of diluting white voting strength.” 

Brown appealed the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a three-judge panel later affirmed Lee’s ruling in 2009, making the Brown case the first time that the Voting Rights Act was used to successfully allege voter discrimination by Blacks against whites. But Brown’s legal team called the prosecution a “concerted effort by the Bush Administration to interfere with the ability of Black voters to elect Black officials.”

The Fifth Circuit Court panel ruled Brown’s “conduct was undertaken with discriminatory intent: Brown’s statements indicate that he was primarily motivated by race.” 

Lee’s sentences in the “Goon Squad” were tough but fair and sent a long overdue message to the small segment of law enforcement officers who thought a badge shielded their kind of “law enforcement” from punishment.

Anyone surprised by Lee’s steady, even dispensation of justice in the “Goon Squad” cases has simply not observed the judge’s four decades of federal judicial service. Regardless of the complexities of the cases, Judge Tom Lee for some 40 years has followed the law and let the chips fall.

About the Author(s)
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Sid Salter

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications at Mississippi State University. Sid is a member of the Mississippi Press Association's Hall of Fame. His syndicated columns have been published in Mississippi and several national newspapers since 1978.