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A federal jury has awarded more than $24 million to a black Texas family that had a cross burned on their lawn by five white men three years ago. Dwayne and Maria Ross and their two minor children were awarded more than $8 million in compensatory damages and more than $16 million in punitives. Houston attorney Benjamin L. Hall III, who represented the Rosses, said that on the morning of June 19, 2000, the men, then each 20 years old, trespassed on the Rosses’ property while wearing pillowcases over their heads and carrying a wooden cross wrapped in sheets. After a failed attempt to dig a hole in which to place the cross, the men leaned it against a tree outside of the home, doused it in gasoline, ignited it and fled. The family slept through the incident, unaware of what had happened until 6 a.m. when a neighbor alerted them to the smoldering cross in their yard. Hall noted that the date of the incident, June 19, is also called “Juneteenth” and is recognized as the date in 1865 that, 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Texas slaves were told of their freedom. In May 2001, the Rosses filed suit in Houston, initially naming 17 defendants and claiming violations of their civil rights under 42 U.S.C. 1981 and 1982, a conspiracy to violate those rights, slander, libel and defamation, negligence, gross negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unconscionable conduct and trespass and nuisance. Before trial, Hall won a motion to find that the defense had used its peremptory strikes during voir dire in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the use of a peremptory strike to exclude prospective jurors solely on their race. After a seven-day trial, a jury of two blacks, restored to the jury based on the Batson ruling, and six whites awarded compensatory damages for the family’s claims. Charles R. Parker, a Houston attorney who represented three of the five men, said he had argued at trial that the criminal sanctions imposed on his clients and their co-defendants, which ranged from a 10-year sentence in federal prison to a seven-month sentence in a federal boot camp, were sufficient punishment. “The criminal penalties were severe and effective. These men have been punished adequately.” Hall said that, although the defendants have claimed to be indigent, he intends to collect the entire award from the homeowner policy carriers for the men’s parents. One parent had already bought supplemental coverage for intentional acts, and another’s was found vicariously liable for his son’s acts. Bad-faith claims have already been filed against Allstate Corp. and State Farm Insurance, Hall said.

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