A civil jury in Linden, Texas, today awarded approximately $9 million in damages to Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled black man who was taunted, knocked unconscious and dumped along a desolate road by four white men in September 2003.
The Center brought suit on his behalf in 2005 after the men responsible for the crime received only light jail sentences - 30 days for three of them and 60 days for one.
"On behalf of Billy Ray Johnson, we thank the jury - the conscience of Cass County - for returning a just and fair verdict," said Morris Dees, the Center's founder and chief trial attorney, in a statement to the media after the verdict.
"The defendants in this case treated Billy Ray like trash. They broke his body and threw him in a ditch alongside a deserted road. The jury told all of Texas and, indeed, the entire country that Billy Ray is a human being who deserves to be treated with dignity, that the life of each of us - rich or poor, black or white, abled or disabled - is truly precious. It's a message, I hope, that we always remember."
Johnson, 46, who suffered serious, permanent brain injuries from the attack, will require care for the rest of his life.
Center founder Morris Dees escorts Billy Ray Johnson from the courthouse in Linden, Texas.
The case exposed deep racial fault lines in the East Texas community. Many blacks viewed the episode as a vicious hate crime, but predominantly white juries acquitted two of the defendants of felony charges. Many whites in the town expressed sympathy for the defendants and indifference to Johnson's injuries.
Joining the Center's legal team at the trial were Longview, Texas, lawyer Glenn Perry and his wife, Dr. Jan DeLipsey, a jurist psychologist who helped select the jury. Both worked pro bono, donating their services. Perry helped the Center with another east Texas civil case in 1988.
After a four-day trial that began on April 17, the jury of 11 whites and one black deliberated less than four hours before returning a unanimous verdict finding James Cory Hicks and Christopher Colt Amox responsible for Johnson's injuries.
Two other defendants, Dallas Chadwick Stone and John Wesley Owens, earlier reached confidential settlements in the lawsuit.
Jurors said afterward they hoped the verdict sends a message to children in their community and to the nation as a whole.
"Billy Ray is not an 'it,' like one of the defendants said," one juror said. "He is a human being. We hope that our verdict sends a message to the nation about this community."
Another said, "No one - no one - should have to go through what this man went through. And no amount of money can fix that."
All four men were at a "pasture party" on the night of September 28, 2003, when Johnson - 42 at the time but childlike and naive - was picked up from town and brought to the party, where about a dozen people were sitting on tailgates drinking beer.
After a period in which they teased and taunted Johnson, the defendants began talking about beating him up. Amox, who had been a high school pitcher, punched Johnson in the face, knocking him unconscious. Instead of taking Johnson to the hospital, the men threw him into the back of a pickup truck and left him by the side of a remote rural road.
The Cass County juries that heard the criminal cases against Amox, who was 20 at the time, and Hicks, then 24 and a jail employee, acquitted them of serious felony charges and instead handed down lesser convictions with a recommended sentence of probation.
Stone, then 18, and 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.
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 Texas nursing home.