05/14/2007

Texas Couple Plays Key Role in Johnson Verdict

A Texas lawyer and his psychologist wife played key roles in the Center's successful pursuit of justice for Billy Ray Johnson, a black man with mental retardation who was ridiculed, assaulted and left for dead on a desolate country road by four young white men. The Center sued on his behalf, and on April 20, a jury awarded him $9 million.

Glenn Perry, a prominent trial lawyer from Longview, served as local counsel on the Center's legal team and led the questioning of potential jurors. His wife, Dr. Jan DeLipsey, a jurist psychologist with the Dallas-based company Litigation Edge, drew up a jury pool questionnaire designed to reveal bigotry among the 400 residents of Cass County, Texas, who were summoned as potential jurors.

Perry and DeLipsey volunteered their services, meaning that every penny collected on Johnson's behalf will go directly into a trust fund to pay for the medical care and nursing supervision he will require for the rest of his life. The Center, which is supported by its members, does not take any portion of its clients' court awards.

"Glenn Perry did a masterful job of questioning witnesses and relating to the jury," said Morris Dees, the Center's chief trial counsel, who led the trial team. "His performance throughout the trial was mesmerizing."

Perry, along with DeLipsey, also played critical roles in choosing the jury.

All but 114 of the potential jurors were eliminated after filling out DeLipsey's questionnaire. Then Perry's skillful questioning of the remaining jury panel resulted in nearly 50 jurors being excused because of strong prejudgments both for and against the plaintiff that would have affected their ability to render a fair verdict.

"Without the panel members' forthrightness, we could never have found a fair group of 12 jurors to render a judgment in this important case," DeLipsey said. "I knew that when they took their place in the jury box that Billy Ray Johnson would finally get the full measure of justice he deserved."

Perry provided a powerful closing argument at the conclusion of the four-day trial. He reminded the jury that they had come together as the conscience of the community and that their verdict would write the final chapter in a saga of unconscionable conduct.

Three hours later, the jury returned a unanimous verdict. Immediately after the trial, tearful jurors told reporters and spectators that they hoped their verdict would send a loud and clear message that callous and inhumane treatment of any person, regardless of color or station in life, would not be tolerated.

This was not the first time Perry contributed to the success of a Center lawsuit in east Texas. In 1988, he helped the Center represent the family of Loyal Garner Jr., a black man who was beaten to death by law enforcement officers in the border town of Hemphill after being stopped for a minor traffic violation. Employed by his local county government, Garner had never been in trouble in his life. When he complained about being kept in jail, a white lawman hit him in the head with a blackjack. Garner died, leaving behind a wife and six young children.

The Center's lawsuit won financial compensation for Garner's family, and the crucial evidence presented by the Center during that case eventually led to criminal convictions of those responsible for his death.

"Justice is inevitable only in the movies," said Center President Richard Cohen, who attended the trial in Linden. "In the real world, it does not always triumph. Sometimes it takes a little luck, compassionate advocates like Glenn Perry and Jan DeLipsey, and an organization like the Southern Poverty Law Center to balance the scales."