By Sue Major Holmes
Prosecutors said the defendants also shaved a swastika on the back of the 22-year-old man's head and used markers to write "KKK" — referring to the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan — and "White Power" on him.
Justice Department officials said Paul Beebe, 26, William Hatch, 29, and Jesse Sanford, 25, face charges of conspiracy and violating a federal hate-crimes act in the April incident in Farmington, in northwestern New Mexico.
The indictment says the three made a cellphone video in which the Navajo man, who has significant cognitive impairment, purportedly consented to the branding.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales said Friday the hate crime prosecution is the first in New Mexico since the federal law was enacted last October.
"We're definitely breaking new ground," he said.
The allegations against the trio fit "squarely within the federal statute," which is aimed at protecting people from being victimized for "who they are or what they are," Gonzales said.
Telephone messages for attorneys representing Beebe and Hatch were not immediately returned. A court website did not list an attorney for Sanford.
The federal hate crimes law calls for a maximum sentence of 10 years upon conviction, but Gonzales said that could be "substantially higher" if federal prosecutors prove the offence included kidnapping. Prosecutors would have to prove the victim was confined against his will and that the conduct was motivated by racial hate, he said.
Beebe, Hatch and Sanford also face state charges.
Gonzales said the federal and state cases will run parallel to each other and that his office will work with the district attorney in Farmington.