In William Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, MS, the killing of a black woman in her own home by a white police officer shows that, as Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
An African-American woman named Dominique Clayton was killed in her Oxford, Mississippi home on Sunday, May 19. She was shot early that morning, in the back of the head while she slept. Her youngest son, Jadarius, found her body later that night. It took the city of Oxford two days to arrest Matthew Kinne, a white Oxford police officer, and charge him with the murder. The Oxford Police Department fired Kinne that same day, Tuesday, May 21.
During the presentation of Kinne’s initial charges on Wednesday, May 22, the Clayton family were struck by what they viewed to be the judge’s light and inappropriate handling of the case, especially once the judge began talking with prosecutors and defense attorneys about a “reasonable bail” for Kinne. The Clayton family was outraged, and demanded the judge be replaced. This demand was accepted on Thursday, May 23, when Judge Andrew Howorth recused himself from the case and was replaced by Judge John A. Gregory.
When I arrived in Oxford, Mississippi on Friday, May 24, though, I knew nothing about all of this. I was there with the intent of dropping in to Yoknapatawpha County, the brilliantly imagined fictional world that serves as the background for William Faulkner’s novels. I had just graduated from the University of Virginia the week before. In my final spring semester, I had taken a Faulkner seminar with Professor Stephen Railton, an endearing Faulkner scholar who taught the course one final time before retirement. Having immersed myself in eight of Faulkner’s finest Yoknapatawpha fictions, I was committed to make the 12-hour drive from Charlottesville, Virginia to Oxford, Mississippi in order to see what Yoknapatawpha was “really like.”
Even though Yoknapatawpha’s county seat of Jefferson bears strong similarities to Oxford geographically, I wondered how similar these two places could be in reality. What I found was evidence that Faulkner’s fiction — which, according to Virginia writer Lindsay Parnell, “sees the [South] as [a region] which is haunted by the crimes of its past … until history itself becomes a willful and pernicious presence” — is grounded in a reality that persists on from the imagined early 20th century world of Yoknapatawpha to the experience of those living in Oxford, Mississippi today.
This is the story of what happened to me one Friday afternoon in May, what had happened to Dominique Clayton five days earlier, and what has taken place in Oxford, Mississippi ever since.
My participation in this case began on Friday, May 24th in Oxford’s Courthouse Square. It was a warm Friday afternoon, my first in Oxford; I had just left Square Books with a package left there for me by one of my mentors at UVa. I crossed the Square to sit on the benches in front of the courthouse. I knew the two oak trees behind the Confederate monument — a soldier standing erect at the edge of the lawn and overlooking the square — would provide enough shade for me to write comfortably for a few hours. Letting sensations and events wash over me and influence the direction of my writing was all that I expected from the afternoon.
An hour or so passed with no interruptions. Then one woman, balancing a video camera on her shoulder and carrying a tripod in her hand, walked up the steps on the opposite side of the courthouse from me. She was with a short, bald man with a white tucked-in shirt, wiping his head with a white kerchief. The woman set up her camera and pointed it at the courthouse steps.
Twenty minutes later, the camerawoman was joined by another woman — a news reporter in a pink dress. I could hear their conversation across the lawn; they were talking about Dominique Clayton’s case, of which I then knew nothing. Once they’d all checked in, the reporter and the short man wandered away again. The camerawoman continued to sit by her equipment as the sun began to break through the trees.
Half an hour later, more reporters and camera crews began to mount the steps toward the courthouse. Reporters juggled their microphones and their phones, talked with one another about how to cover the case. I wasn’t listening attentively, but I was able to catch bits and pieces. There was a murder, and the murderer was being held in a different county. It occurred five days ago and there had already been public outrage on the courthouse steps. The reporters and crews complained that because so many people were yelling and cursing, they’d only gotten five seconds of footage they could use on TV. They were hoping to get more usable coverage this time around.
After the reporters had established themselves and their cameras on the courthouse lawn, more people, most of them black, began to arrive. They came in small groups, from all directions. One young woman in a red dress was carrying an armful of cardboard signs with the words hidden, facing toward her. In half an hour, the crowd on the lawn had gone from five people to 50, and was still growing. Benches were mostly taken by reporters and TV news crews; the gathering crowd stood on all sides of the lawn, facing the courthouse. Two women approached to sit on the bench with me. I moved my things over to give them room.
The women were discussing the same case the news people had been talking about earlier. It was definitely a murder. “I think he will get life in prison,” the woman to my left said. She talked details, particulars about the family of the victim, how they had insider knowledge. Then, seeing me writing in my notebook, the woman to my left leaned over and asked me, “Do you go to Ole Miss?”
“No ma’am,” I said. “I came from Charlottesville, Virginia.”
She looked surprised. “You came all the way from Virginia for this? Are you freelancing?”
Now I was at a loss for words. I stammered, “Oh, no, ma’am, I’m just visiting. I’m here for a couple days.”
Both of the women were looking at me now, surprised, but they didn’t respond. They continued to talk about the family and the details. When there was a break in their conversation, I turned to the woman on my left and asked, “What happened here?”
“A police officer shot and killed a young woman,” she said, fanning herself in the heat. “The officer was white and she was black. He shot her in the back of the head.”
I was still. “Oh my god. That’s terrible. A police officer shot her?”
“He broke into her home and shot her in her bedroom.”
She leaned back and turned her head to face the courthouse.
By now, there were easily a hundred people on the lawn, if not more. They all stood facing the courthouse, many starting to take out their phones and hold them up, ready to record what was to come.
The woman next to me jumped up and pointed to the parking lot. “That’s him,” she said. “That’s the lawyer. There he is.”
Across the square, a man in a blue suit was walking over slowly, shaking hands along the way. As he approached the lawn, everyone began to stand up. A large group of people had assembled in three rows on the steps of the courthouse. The young woman who had been carrying signs had distributed them to others, and they all held them high. “Justice for Dominique,” the signs read.
The lawyer, who I later learned was Carlos Moore, the Clayton family’s attorney, approached the podium at the front of the steps. Everyone in the audience was standing now, watching him. Cameras were rolling, phones were out — everyone there was at attention. I was still figuring out what was going on, but I stood too.
“Right now, the officer is being charged with the murder of Dominique Clayton,” Moore said. “The alleged murder is a felony, and there is evidence and speculation for a variety of motives. One of the possible motives that has recently come to light is that the officer and Ms. Clayton were romantically involved. Whether this is what led him to break into her home and shoot Ms. Clayton in the back of the head is still unclear. But justice will be served.”
“The murder of Ms. Clayton is a felony crime,” he continued. “But if it can be proven that the officer did break into Ms. Clayton’s home, or if there is proof of sexual assault or attempted rape, then that would be another felony, which would change this case from a murder charge to a capital murder charge. In this country, the maximum sentence for a felony is life in prison. But in the state of Mississippi, the maximum sentence for capital murder is death by firing squad. Now, I don’t believe in public hangings, and I don’t believe in extrajudicial killings. But I have spoken with the family, and we both are in agreement that, in the event that this officer is convicted of capital murder, myself and the family will both be front row at his firing squad, watching justice be served.”
I thought of the opening scene of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, in which a black man wrongfully accused of killing a white man is led to jail across the same Courthouse Square in which I now stood. I was also acutely aware of more recent demonstrations by Black Lives Matter activists in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. I was used to seeing those on screen, but this was unfolding right before my eyes.
After Moore spoke, he brought Dominique’s sister, Shyjuan Clayton, to the podium to say a few words. I recognized her as the young woman who’d distributed the “Justice For Dominique” signs. She spoke briefly and quietly, Moore answered a few questions from reporters, and then the press conference was over.
As the crowd dispersed, Shyjuan sat down on a bench to my right, and some friends gathered around to join her. She did a few brief interviews, then began talking with her friends about what to do that night, their school, and their hair. This was the night of their local high school’s graduation ceremony. Maybe they were still in high school.
Before long they had left, and soon, there was no one left sitting on the benches around Courthouse Square but me. Finishing my writing, I looked up once more at the monument. The engraved dedication has text on all four sides, one side declaring the South as fighting for a “just and holy cause.” I read it one more time, turned and walked back to my car.
It’s been five months since that day in Courthouse Square, and coverage of Dominique Clayton’s murder still hasn’t reached beyond regional coverage in Mississippi and surrounding states. The frequency of events like this — police brutality resulting in black deaths — is uncanny, both across the South and beyond it. Perhaps that’s why Dominique Clayton’s murder isn’t more widely known; such events aren’t rare enough to rate national news coverage.
Since I learned of this case on May 24, I’ve been tracking its progress. In the two weeks following the press conference I found myself present for, Moore and others began investigating the possibility that the Oxford city government and Police Department had facilitated Kinne’s actions. On June 10, Carlos Moore delivered a $5 million claim to the city of Oxford for damages to the Clayton family. A letter was attached along with the claim containing material that seemed to incriminate Matthew Kinne.
In Moore’s letter, according to The Oxford Eagle’s Jake Thompson, he confirmed the speculations about a secret romantic relationship between Kinne and Clayton. Through members of the Clayton family, Moore’s letter revealed, the lawyer had learned that Kinne frequently visited Clayton, “arriv[ing] at around 1:30am and 2am and leav[ing] around 4am on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Prior to her death, Ms. Clayton informed Officer Kinne of the possibility that she was pregnant.”
Moore’s letter also claimed that Kinne was in uniform at the time of Clayton’s death, and that Clayton had told her sister that she was worried Kinne might hurt her after he visited her “unexpectedly” five days before her death. Three days before Clayton’s death, Moore stated in the letter, Kinne had forced her to get rid of her dogs, perhaps her only effective alarm against an intruder.
Further, the letter claimed that Oxford Police officers had caused “undue stress” to the Clayton family by initially calling Dominique’s death a suicide, despite there being no gun found anywhere at the crime scene. The abrupt resignation of two officers seemingly unconnected to the case raised further suspicions in Moore and the Clayton family, and resulted in an investigation of the Oxford Police Department, initiated by Mayor Robyn Tannehill and carried out by the state attorney general Jim Hood.
Months after the release of this letter, on August 30, a grand jury in Lafayette County, Mississippi formally indicted Matthew Kinne for capital murder. The official verdict was that Kinne and Clayton were romantically involved in some way, and Kinne was acting on this pretense when he broke into Clayton’s home and shot her in her bed while she slept.
On Monday, September 30th, Kinne appeared in court for his arraignment hearing. He pleaded not guilty to the capital murder charge against him. He remained silent when asked by the judge if he had anything to say to the Clayton family.
This is where things still stand today, and will stand until at least sometime in 2020. The question of whether the Clayton family will see justice for Dominique — whether Matthew Kinne will receive life in prison, or death at the hands of a firing squad — lingers over the family and the town of Oxford, Mississippi. By a quirk of circumstance, and my desire to see what William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha was “really like,” it hangs over me, too.
Many outside of Oxford, Mississippi may recognize this story in their own experience. Unjust killings like that of Dominique Clayton don’t just occur in Oxford, Mississippi — they happen in Chicago, Cleveland, DC, Brooklyn, Atlanta, and in numerous other places around the country. Many never register in the nation’s consciousness. By sharing Dominique Clayton’s story — by continuing to say her name — I hope to keep her spirit alive, and to motivate others to keep the spirits of the ones they have lost alive as well.
Like the Clayton family and many in the community of Oxford, Mississippi, I want to see justice for Dominique Clayton. And even after justice is served, I will continue to remember her spirit. I will remember to say her name.
Top Photo by Chase Browning