Photographer Gillian Laub first made headlines when she published photos chronicling segregated proms in 2009. Laub embarked on a high school in Montgomery County High School in Alabama to show people just how segregation was still existing in the town. In 2012, the high school held its first integrated prom.
But Laub wasn’t welcomed back when she returned that year. She received threats and was kicked out. But what she uncovered was a crime that has still have the town reeling.
Justin Patterson was a 22-year-old black man who was killed by Norman Neesmith, a 62-year-old white man.
Patterson and his 18-year-old brother, Sha’von, had been invited to Neesmith’s home late one night by his 18-year-old niece Danielle, whom Neesmith had raised. The Patterson brothers smoked pot with Danielle and a 15-year-old friend before pairing off to separate bedrooms.
Neesmith then woke up and found the young men in his home. While details of what happened next vary by account, the confrontation ended with Neesmith shooting Justin as he and his brother attempted to flee. The young man died in Neesmith’s yard.
In the HBO documentary “Southern Rites,” Laub took a deeper look into the murder.
“I knew that this was the story that just needed to be told,” Laub tells PEOPLE.
Laub reached out to Justin Patterson’s mother, Deedee Clarke, who was reluctant to speak at first.
“For one thing, the D.A. had told me and my ex-husband that it was best that we didn’t talk about the case,” Clarke tells PEOPLE. “So we didn’t talk about the case because he was the D.A., and we thought he was on our side.”
But after the trial was postponed several times, Clarke began to feel that Laub was the only person who wanted to help.
“I wanted everybody to know that my son Justin had died and nobody cared,” she says.
“[Justin] died right at the uprising of all of these high-profile cases, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown,” Clarke continued. “I remember watching television, and I was looking at the Trayvon Martin case, and I just remember looking at his mom thinking, ‘Wow, I know exactly how this lady feels; the pain is real.’ I knew what she was dealing with, but I thought at least everybody knows what happened to her son.”
The D.A. brought seven charges against Neesmith, including murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault. After several delays, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct and was sentenced to a year in a special detention program.
“The night it happened – [the D.A.] told me and my ex-husband that this man would never see the light of day,” Clarke says. “A year later, we’re told that this is a Jim Crow county and he wouldn’t be able to get a real conviction because the man is well known and he’s a farmer. What does being a farmer have to do with murdering a young black boy?”
Southern Rites premieres on HBO May 18.