12/16/2005

SPLC Seeks Damages for Injured Man

Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys in September filed a lawsuit seeking damages for Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled black man knocked unconscious and left on a roadside by four young white men.

Johnson, 42 at the time of the incident, had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. On September 28, 2003, he 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 a jig 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 dumped 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. But the Cass County, Texas, juries that heard the 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 and testified against Amox and Hicks.

A judge in May 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. "It's something we can't ignore."

The lawsuit, filed in Cass County District Court here, alleges that the four defendants, plus Lacy Dorgan, the girlfriend of one of them who was present during the party, are liable for assault and negligence, among other things, in the case.

Serving as local counsel on the case are Claudene Arrington of Hope, Arkansas, and Glenn Perry of Longview, Texas.

Johnson, who had no criminal background or history of violence or trouble of any kind, lived with his mother and brother before the assault. Now he is 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.

Owens was the host of the party, which was held on his father's property. He picked up Johnson at a nearby convenience store and drove him to the gathering.

Hicks was a Cass County jailer at the time of the incident. He encouraged others at the party to hit Johnson and later discouraged the others from getting the unconscious victim medical attention. Stone told Johnson to leave the party before the "KKK comes and gets you," according to court testimony.

Amox punched Johnson in the face, knocking him to the ground unconscious. Just before Amox slugged Johnson, Stone knocked a beer can out of Johnson's hand and urged Amox to hit him, witnesses said.

Rather than use their cell phones to call for an ambulance or take Johnson immediately to a hospital, the partygoers drank beer and debated what to do with him. After an hour or so, they put him in the back of a truck to keep from getting his blood on the cloth seats of a car and deposited his body on the side of the road.

"Rarely in my 45 years as a civil rights lawyer have I been so angry about an injustice as I am about what happened to Billy Ray Johnson," Dees said.