Murfreesboro Daily News Journal
Published 10:59 p.m. UTC Sep 4, 2018
MURFREESBORO, TENN. – An inmate letter intercepted by officials in Tennessee appears to shed light on a possible motive in the fatal burning of a black man earlier this year: white supremacy.
Prosecutors say they're now further investigating the case to determine if hate crime sentencing enhancement could be applied to the first-degree murder charge against John Daniel Carothers, 53, an inmate in the Rutherford County jail.
Carothers, a white man, was charged in March with the killing of 40-year-old Robert Miller, a black victim authorities say Carothers set on fire at a Veterans' Affairs assisted living home where the men lived.
"My Name is John D Carothers and I believe The Bible is about White People and for White People," Carothers wrote in the letter addressed to the American Institute of Theology in Harrison, Arkansas. "I am in Rutherford County Jail for burning a black man I set him on fire with lighter fluid poured on his head."
A Murfreesboro police detective testified at an Aug. 8 court hearing that jailers decided to intercept and read Carothers' letter after Googling the organization to which the mail was addressed.
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"They saw it was what they believed to be like a white supremacist type deal," Det. Jacob Fountain told the court last month when describing jail staff's research into the AIT.
They were right, according to hate and extremist experts.
The Anti-Defamation League describes AIT, which is affiliated with Kingdom Identity Ministries, as a small but longstanding group in the Christian Identity movement.
The movement espouses a racist and anti-Semitic religious doctrine that claims "white Europeans are the true Israelites, and non-whites are the 'mud people,'" according to the ADL.
In Carothers' letter to AIT, he asks that a "study Bible" from the group be sent to him.
'We've not seen this style of crime,' DA says
From the perspective of District Attorney Jennings Jones, the possible racial motivation that prosecutors and detectives are now analyzing is not something he has dealt with frequently.
"We have our share of crime, but we really have not seen this style of crime driven by racial animus," Jennings said. "This deviates from what we normally see in Rutherford County."
Reports of hate crimes increased last year in Tennessee, according to a report released this spring by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
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The number of criminal offenses motivated by a known bias increased 10.5 percent from 2016 to 2017. Anti-black or African American bias accounted for nearly 38 percent of known hate crimes in the state.
Earlier this summer, a man in Rutherford County was charged with aggravated assault with a hate crime enhancement after authorities said he severely beat a gay man and bragged about it.
Victim died days after being set on fire at Murfreesboro home
According to authorities, Carothers set Miller on fire March 17 at the assisted living home on Maple Street in Murfreesboro.
Some of the home’s residents helped Miller into a shower to extinguish the flames before moving him away from the bedroom where the fire stated and onto the back porch.
Lisa Hathaway, a cook at the home, testified in court that when she went to find him on the back porch, Miller, whose "skin was coming off of him," told her that Carothers had set him on fire.
A murder charge was filed against Carothers upon Miller's death March 27.
At the time, Carothers was also charged with eight counts of reckless endangerment and one count of aggravated arson.
Carothers was previously convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 and later pleaded guilty to a lower charge in 2011 after being charged with second degree murder another time.
In a statement, Allison Padilla-Goodman, ADL southeast regional director, called on Jennings to bring hate crime sentencing enhancement against Carothers.
Padilla-Goodman also asked that the Tennessee General Assembly "enact a comprehensive hate crime law in the victim’s honor," related to "crimes committed because of hate, bias or bigotry."
In addition to hate crime sentencing enhancement, in Tennessee, certain hate crimes can be prosecuted as a felony under the Civil Rights Intimidation Act, a statute violation that can be difficult to prove.
Follow on Twitter at @natalie_allison; follow Mariah Timms at @MariahTimms