READ MORE | ‘Ultimate bullies’ get 5 years for anti-gay beating

The campaign of two Georgia lawmakers fighting one another for re-election—one gay-friendly, the other a lesbian—turned into a distracting sideshow on Thursday during the sentencing hearing of three men who beat a gay Atlanta man.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Ralph Long, testified during the sentencing hearing despite tenuous ties to the case and with little understanding of the felons he was supporting. The other, Rep. Simone Bell, issued conflicting statements, at first signing on to a letter asking for probation for the offenders only to hours later contradict that by urging Fulton prosecutors drop their charges to make way for a federal hate crimes case.

Long and Bell, both Democrats, were pitted against each other thanks to Republican-led redistricting last year that put both them both into a newly-constituted House District 58, which now includes the area where the attack took place. The winner of the July 31 primary faces token Republican opposition in the November general election.

The campaign has already taken some odd twists. Long blasted Georgia Equality as being anti-straight “bigots” for endorsing Bell over him. And while campaigning, Long is also battling his neighbor in court over her Pit Bulls and loud parties.

On Thursday, Long made a surprise appearance at the sentencing hearing for three men who pleaded guilty to the anti-gay beating of Brandon White outside a southwest Atlanta grocery store on Feb. 4. Long huddled (photo left) with defense attorneys including Jay Abt (photo right), who has worked to discredit White in the media and among some LGBT activists. Long then testified on behalf of the three attackers – Christopher Cain, Dorian Moragne and Dareal Demare Williams.

Long admitted that he is “still learning” about the criminal histories of the three men, yet went on to tell Fulton Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford that a sentence of 10 years “is a very long time.” Prosecutors are seeking 15-year prison sentences; Bedford is expected to sentence the men after the hearing concludes on Friday.

“They’ve disrespected themselves, they have disrespected the individual, they have disrespected the State of Georgia,” Long said from the witness stand. “With that being said as a representative, I see all kinds of stuff. I would like them to do some time, but at the same time 10 years is a very long time.”

“I would like to see the court be lenient in regards to that length of time, but I do want them to know the inside of that cell,” he added.

Abt pushed Long to specify the length of the prison term the state lawmaker would like to see in the case. He demurred.

“I really don’t feel comfortable answering that question specifically because I am not the judge. But I would leave it as specific as this court showing leniency so perhaps these young men can change their lives. I would like to see them tethered for 10 years with some probation or some giveback to the community. I like that 10-year number,” Long said.

Bell was one of 22 LGBT activists that signed a July 11 letter urging Bedford to sentence the three men to probation or community service. Bell, the first black lesbian to win election to a state legislature, was the only state lawmaker who signed it. (Read the letter below.)

“With great respect to the Court, we must reiterate that we believe the homophobia underlying physical attacks on LGBTQ individuals is not remedied through imprisonment,” the letter states. “We are supportive of Mr. Moragne and Mr. Wiliam [sic] being permitted to regain their freedom by imposing sentences that will hold each young man to account for his actions through probation or community service.”

But testimony during Thursday’s hearing showed that all three men – Cain, Moragne and Williams – were either on probation and serving first-offender sentences when they attacked and beat White. The authors of the letter didn’t meet with White before they sent it to Bedford and White criticized the suggestion of probation for his attackers. Morange attempted to downplay his role in White’s beating, testifying that “I barely hit hm” before adding “I didn’t hit him to the point of killing him.”

Hours after the hearing ended, Bell issued a statement that contradicted what she was lobbying for in the letter. In the statement, Bell asks Fulton prosecutors to drop their case to allow the three men to be prosecuted under a federal hate crimes law by the U.S. Attorney. The FBI and federal prosecutors have been involved in the case and are considering leveling charges against the attackers.

“I view the attack on Mr. White as a crime centered in hate due his sexual orientation, whether perceived or real, at the time of the attack. I would like to see the federal hate crimes case move forward. I believe doing so would create a precedent, and move forward hate crimes legislation in Georgia that I have signed in the state legislature. It is a protection we desperately need,” Bell said in the statement.

Bell’s statement does not directly address her plea to Bedford for a sentence of probation or community service.

Bell’s full statement:

Rep. Simone Bell signs on to letter asking Fulton County to grant leniency in their sentencing of two perpetrators who attacked Brandon White.

A group of Atlanta LGBTQ activists wrote a letter to Fulton Superior Court Judge Bedford Jackson asking a light sentence be imposed on two young men who pleaded guilty to the Feb. 4 beating of gay man Brandon White. Rep. Bell would like to see the charges removed from Fulton County and tried in the Federal Case.

“I view the attack on Mr. White as a crime centered in hate due his sexual orientation, whether perceived or real, at the time of the attack. I would like to see the federal hate crimes case move forward. I believe doing so would create a precedent, and move forward hate crimes legislation in Georgia that I have signed in the state legislature. It is a protection we desperately need. As it stands, the perpetrators would be convicted under Georgia’s criminal code, not as a hate crime – Georgia does not have a Hate Crimes law, and their exposure could be an enormously long sentence with no system of rehabilitation for their acts, only imprisonment.”

“I am on record with Mr. White’s advisors and the community to be strategic about moving forward in this matter to seek and receive the justice that Mr. White deserves. As I stated at the first community meeting regarding this matter, at the end of the day we want a crime like the one perpetrated against Mr. White to never happen again. When it does occur, I would like for there to be consequences that extend beyond incarceration. I think the state hate crimes law opens the door for such policy. We have an opportunity to not only seek justice for Mr. White, but for others, and strategically work to eradicate homophobia, which is the root of this crime. It is impossible to place a time frame on the amount of hurt and pain that Mr. White has experienced. However, there is a way to be sure that those who commit these crimes will be forced to face their hatred head on. I believe a state hate crimes law and a policy change can do that. The current case and sentencing does not bring about the systematic change that our community needs and deserves.”