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Federal jury convicts man of hate crime for firing shotgun at Latino neighbor and Middle-Eastern man

WASHINGTON, D.C. – After a five-day trial, a federal jury found Justin Cole Whittington, 25, of Bakersfield, California, guilty of federal hate crimes for firing a shotgun while yelling racist slurs at a Latino man.

The conviction was announced by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert of the Eastern District of California.

Whittington was convicted today of interfering with a person’s housing rights because of his race, color or national origin by use of force or threat of force; use of a firearm during a crime of violence; and making a false statement to a special agent of the FBI. Whittington had earlier pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a prohibited firearm in connection to the same crime.

“Whittington used violence to terrorize an innocent man and his family,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gupta. “The harm from hate crimes like this one extends beyond individuals and threatens the security, freedom and well-being of entire communities. No conviction can reverse that harm but this verdict does provide a measure of justice for the victim, his family and his community.”

“The Eastern District of California is a community of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds,” said U.S. Attorney Talbert. “This defendant tried to strike at the diversity that enriches us by making a cowardly and unprovoked attack on a man who was simply standing in his front yard with his family. Hate crimes like this have profound effects not only on the victims, but on those in the victims’ communities, making them feel vulnerable and unsafe. Our office is committed to investigating and prosecuting those who violate the civil rights of others and enforcing laws against hate crimes will remain one of the core missions of this office.”

According to court documents, on Dec. 19, 2012, the victim, a Latino man, was standing in his front yard with his wife and son when a dark-colored PT Cruiser drove past slowly and came to a stop in front of his neighbor’s house. Whittington, whom the victim had never seen before, got out of the front passenger seat of the car holding a sawed-off shotgun. Whittington used profanity and shouted a racial epithet as he fired one round toward the victim from about 15 yards away, and yelled that the victim should move out of Oildale, California. Whittington got back into the vehicle and drove off. Shortly thereafter, the shotgun was fired from the car at a nearby convenience store owned by a man of Middle Eastern descent. The blast left a large hole in the store’s glass door and circles of missing paint on the metal gate in front of the store.

According to evidence presented at trial, the victim was able to describe Whittington and the car to Kern County, California, Sheriff’s deputies, and they found Whittington nearby standing outside the PT Cruiser. The deputies recovered a sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of Whittington’s Crown Victoria, which was parked near the PT Cruiser.

Whittington was also found guilty of making false statements to an FBI agent when he claimed that on the evening of the incident, he had been paid by someone to keep the sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of his car.

According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, the victim and his family no longer felt safe in their home and, as soon as they had the financial means to do so, they moved from the neighborhood.

Whittington is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd of the Eastern District of California on Feb. 27, 2017. Whittington faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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