LINDEN, Texas – Citing the seriousness of the crime, a judge Friday added short jail terms to sentences recommended by juries for two of four men convicted of beating a mentally disabled black man and leaving him in a field.
All four could have faced 10 years in prison on the original charges in the 2003 beating of Billy Ray Johnson, who was found unconscious on a fire ant mound and now lives in a nursing home. But two of the men entered plea deals, and juries recommended suspended sentences, meaning no jail time, for the other two.
Judge Ralph K. Burgess invoked his right to add short jail terms for Christopher Amox, who punched Johnson, and James Hicks, a Cass County jailer at the time who helped hide Johnson at a tire dump. Both were convicted by a jury. Hicks, 26, received 10 years’ probation and 60 days behind bars. Amox, 20, got two years’ probation, a $4,000 fine and a 30-day jail sentence.
The judge sentenced Dallas Stone, 19 and John Wesley “Wes” Owens, 22, to five years’ probation, a $2,000 fine and 30 days in jail. Stone and Owens entered guilty pleas.
The defendants were whisked out of court after sentencing.
Authorities in this poor, pine-locked east Texas hamlet of 2,300 have said that Johnson, well-known around town as a friendly but “slow” character who loved dancing, was lured to an all-white pasture party where underage drinkers fed him alcohol and picked on him.
Owens and Stone, who pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony charge of injury to a disabled person by omission, testified that Amox and Johnson were arguing about country versus rap music when Amox told Johnson to leave.
Then Amox swung at Johnson, who fell and began vomiting and gagging, according to testimony. The men loaded Johnson into a truck and drove to an old tire dump, where they left him on the ant hill.
Doctors soon determined he had suffered a concussion that, without medical attention, could have killed him, Lee said. Johnson was hospitalized for weeks. He is now unable to walk without help or speak clearly.
Amox, facing the same felony charge as Owens and Stone, was acquitted of that count but convicted of misdemeanor assault in March. This month, a different jury found Hicks guilty of the felony charge, which carries a penalty of two to 10 years in prison.
White supporters of the men note they are “good boys” from prominent families with no previous legal trouble. But other residents, blacks and whites, say the case has been tainted by small-town politics, racism and a court system that favors whites.
“Justice has not been done,” said Joetta Ford, 55, who is black. “I commend Burgess for adding more jail time, but the Johnson family is not happy. Billy Ray won’t get a chance to go on with his life. He has no future.”
Jacque Arnold, a 56-year-old white woman who works at a juvenile detention center, said it was a clear case of racism.
“Our laws are made to protect people who can’t protect themselves, and just because these are little rich white boys, they got off,” she said.
District Attorney Randal Lee, who is white, said before the sentences were imposed that the juries’ decisions were in line with other juries who sympathize with first-time offenders. And he pointed out that the so-called beating involved one punch.