Three days after Christmas in 1992, 16-year-old Felicia Houston was strolling down a Monroe sidewalk with two of her cousins, singing and laughing.
None of the girls paid attention to the red pickup truck that had just parked after slowly circling the block again.
Inside sat Russell Hinson, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who wanted to deliver a message with a crossbow. A black drug dealer had ripped him off, and he wanted to make someone pay. It didn’t matter who, as long as they were black, according to records.
With his buddy at the wheel, Hinson aimed a razor-tipped arrow out the window and fired, hitting his target in the chest. Felicia collapsed to the ground. By morning, she was dead.
A year later, Hinson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The notorious case of the crossbow killer is under review by the state Parole Commission, which will deliver a decision soon.
He got life, he should do life. Eugene Houston, Felicia’s father
Under state law, once someone convicted of first-degree murder is eligible for parole, their case is reviewed every three years. In those cases, parole is rarely granted. Parole commissioners reviewed 217 such cases last year and approved only four.
Hinson, now 56, is hopeful about his chance at freedom and is a changed man, an uncle said. “There’s no hatred there any more,” said Dennis Long.
Felicia’s father, Eugene Houston, said he has forgiven Hinson. But he says Hinson should never be released. “If it hadn’t been for him, she would still be around with us,” Houston said. “He got life; he should do life.”
‘We just stuck together’
Interviews and a review of state and federal court records, police statements, trial transcripts and other documents detailed what led to the fatal encounter on Dec. 28, 1992.
Felicia loved animals, science and making people laugh.
The 10th grader earned good grades at Parkwood High. Felicia wanted to perhaps become a nurse and take care of older people, said her mother, Betty Houston.
Felicia often helped two elderly women who lived near their home south of Monroe. After one of the ladies gave Felicia $100 for doing yard work, she told her mom that much money must’ve been a mistake and returned the cash.
Felicia, her mother said, always found the good in people. Growing up with three brothers, Felicia had a simple nickname, “Girl.” Eugene Houston said his “Girl” always made him laugh.
With her best friend, La-Preé Tims, Felicia would go to the movies, the roller-skating rink or simply hang out. They knew, Tims said, they’d be friends for life.
“We just stuck together,” Tims said. “We were supposed to do everything together.”
Where Felicia’s life was full of love and promise, Hinson’s was punctuated by hate.
Hinson was a brick mason with a Rebel flag tattooed inside his right forearm. His father had briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1960s, the older Hinson stated in court.
In 1987, Russell Hinson obtained a permit for the Klan to march in Monroe, records show. The Klan had an active presence in Union County through the mid-20th century but its influence had long waned by the late 1980s. Hinson had described himself at the time to law enforcement as the local group’s leader or “Exalted Cyclops,” testimony showed.
Also in 1987, Hinson pleaded guilty to assaulting a black man who he said liked white girls and had a white roommate. Hinson told authorities he got really drunk that night, and with a fellow Klansman, warned the victim he had not heard the last of the KKK.
Two years later, Hinson was convicted in federal court on a felony civil rights intimidation charge related to the assault, and received five years probation.
After his arrest, he left the Klan or the group dropped him. Yet he still referred to black people by racial epithets, records show.
Hinson lived north of Monroe in a rural area with his third wife and kids. When he went out for target practice on his property, a long-time acquaintance testified, Hinson aimed at a dark-colored mannequin holding what appeared to be a football or watermelon.
In early December 1992, according to testimony, Hinson tried to buy crack cocaine from a dealer in Monroe, who bolted with Hinson’s $70. Nobody crossed Hinson. He wanted payback.
On the afternoon of Dec, 28, a friend later testified, Hinson described his plan: “I’m going to shoot a n----- through the heart.”
A fatal message
Hinson spent the later part of that afternoon at the home of co-worker Guy Brown. In exchange for his testimony, Brown would plead to a lesser charge.
They drank some beers and lit out after Brown’s wife came home and watched the kids.
Hinson wanted Brown to drive him to Monroe to help send a message. Brown testified he didn’t know what that was, but noticed on the floor of his red Chevrolet truck was a crossbow and arrows.
Prosecutors would call it “a weapon out of the Middle Ages.”
As dusk approached, they bought some liquor and mixed it with Sun Drop, Hinson’s favorite, then kept drinking. They cruised around the area where Hinson had gotten ripped off, a predominantly black apartment complex off Burke Street.
Hinson thought he spotted a drug dealer. They drove around and drank some more in a fast-food parking lot, Brown testified, then Hinson said, “Let’s go ahead and get this over with.”
They returned to the apartment complex. Hinson fired the crossbow but missed the man he thought he recognized and hit an oak tree instead.
The dealer, Padishah “Almighty” Poole, testified he was standing with several other black men near the tree when he heard a noise that sounded like it came from a gun’s silencer. He quickly retreated toward the apartments.
On Hinson’s fourth pass around the complex, he ordered Brown to stop the truck. It was about 6:30 p.m.
Felicia, who had been spending part of the Christmas season at her aunt’s apartment, left the building with her 16- and 12-year-old cousins to visit another cousin.
In court, Brown described what happened next:
Hinson and Brown heard their laughter. Then they saw them. Hinson reloaded and stuck the crossbow out the window. Don’t shoot, Brown said. They’re only girls.
I don’t care, Hinson said, One of them is going to pay.
Felicia fell to her knees, her cousin testified, hollering, “I’m shot, I’m hurt! I’m shot, I’m hurt!”
The men drove off, and Brown testified they heard the girls’ terrified screams. “I think I hit one of them,” Hinson said.
They stopped at a convenience store for ice, then drank some more.
Felicia was rushed to the hospital. She was in surgery for five hours, and died at 10:30 a.m., about 16 hours after Hinson shot her.
A swift verdict
At Hinson’s trial, prosecutor Beth Martinson called the case “perhaps one of the most startling and horrifying murders to ever occur in Union County. The senseless, barbaric killing of a totally innocent child.”
An all-white jury took 2 1/2 hours to return a guilty verdict. Hinson, who remained stoic throughout, glanced at the floor and bit his knuckle when the verdict was read.
He never testified. But shortly before the jury considered whether to give him the death penalty, Hinson addressed the panel, saying, “I’m not going to beg for mercy.” He told his family he loved them and apologized to Felicia’s parents “for what they’ve been through.”
The jury deadlocked, sparing Hinson’s life.
This is Hinson’s second parole review. He was first eligible for parole in 2013, and was denied by the independent N.C. Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission.
Four commissioners appointed by the governor separately review an inmate’s file, and consider views of victims, family members and other interested parties. The board does not meet as a group when making decisions.
A majority vote is needed for parole. In case of a 2-2 tie, the chairman gets an additional vote. Individual commissioners’ votes are confidential, as are most parole process records.
Hinson has his supporters, including Long, his uncle. And 75 people signed an online petition supporting his release, including friends and relatives.
We just have to learn to forgive. Dennis Long, an uncle of Russell Hinson’s
Prison changed Hinson, to the point where he accepted the Lord around six years ago, helps teach masonry classes and has African-American friends, Long said. He regularly visits Hinson in Pender state prison, and a former employer has a job waiting for him, Long said.
Over the years, Long says, Hinson expressed remorse to him for killing Felicia. “I guess he knows it’s something he never should’ve done,” Long said.
The murder conviction violated his probation from the federal civil rights case. If Hinson is freed from state prison, he would serve five years in federal custody.
Hinson remains hopeful someone will give him a second chance, Long said. “We just have to learn to forgive.”
But local authorities and Felicia’s friends and family don’t want Hinson to ever get out.
Union County District Attorney Trey Robison called Felicia’s murder a hate crime where Hinson forfeited his right to walk free among civilized society. “It was an absolutely cruel and heartless killing,” he said. “She was targeted because of her race and for no other reason.”
A change.org petition opposing Hinson’s parole has 1,650 supporters.
Felicia’s parents told the parole board they oppose Hinson’s release.
“She was young. She didn’t get a chance to live her life,” Betty Houston said.
If she could speak to Hinson, Betty Houston would ask: “Why did you kill a child like that? Why? What was the reason? If you’re mad at someone else, you should’ve followed up with the law.”
Unlike her husband, Betty Houston has been unable to forgive Hinson.
“I’m trying and praying,” she said quietly. “That’s a hard thing.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.