Billy Ray Johnson Trial Set for April 17

A jury trial in the Center's lawsuit on behalf of Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled black man who was taunted, beaten and left unconscious beside a road by a group of young white men, will begin April 17 in Linden, Texas.

The civil lawsuit is one of the Center's most compelling cases, one with echoes of the 1999 murder of James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck near Jasper, Texas.

On September 28, 2003, Johnson - 42 at the time but childlike and naive - was brought to a "pasture party" to serve as the night's entertainment. Pickups were backed up to a bonfire as partygoers taunted Johnson. They got him to dance around the fire, and someone tried to get him to pick up a burning log, witnesses said.

One of the young men punched Johnson in the head and knocked him unconscious. Instead of taking Johnson to the hospital, the men put him into the back of a pickup truck and left him by the side of a remote rural road.

Johnson suffered serious brain injuries, and he'll never fully recover. The Cass County, Texas, juries that heard the criminal cases against two of the defendants, Christopher Colt Amox, who was 20 at the time of the assault, and James Cory Hicks, then 24, acquitted them of serious felony charges and instead handed down lesser convictions, with a recommended sentence of probation.

The two other defendants, Dallas Chadwick Stone, then 18, and John Wesley Owens, then 19, were allowed to plead guilty to an "injury to a disabled individual by omission" charge. They testified against Amox and Hicks.

A judge sentenced Owens, Stone and Amox to 30-day terms in the county jail and Hicks to 60 days.

"It's hard to think what should make your blood boil more -- what happened to Billy Ray or what didn't happen to those who abused him," said Center chief trial counsel Morris Dees.

The lawsuit, filed in Cass County District Court, alleges that the defendants are liable for assault and negligence, among other things, in the case. It seeks compensatory damages.

Johnson, who had no criminal background, history of violence or trouble of any kind, lived with his mother and brother before the assault. Now he lives in a Texarkana nursing home with permanent brain damage. He tells visitors that he wants to go home, but that's not possible without costly special assistance.