Billy Ray Johnson Is Awarded $9 million by Cass County, Texas Jury.
article by Southern Poverty Law Center
|April 20, 2007 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 Southern Poverty Law
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.||Southern Poverty Law Center Founder Morris Dees with Billy Ray Johnson|
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 Centers 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.
Making it happen. Another S.P.L.C. article re: the Billy Ray Johnson Case
May 14, 2007 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."