NEW ORLEANS – Civil rights lawyers representing a mentally retarded black man who was beaten unconscious and left for dead by four young white men in a small east Texas town were preparing to file a civil lawsuit against the assailants today, four months after local courts convicted them of misdemeanor charges and let them walk free after serving brief jail terms.
Attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-group watchdog that has won punitive damages against the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist organizations across the country, say they hope to garner enough money for the victim, Billy Ray Johnson, 44, to move him from the grim nursing home where he is now confined to a better facility where he can receive therapy for the brain damage he suffered in the assault.
Johnson, a resident of Linden, Texas, who family members said functioned at the level of a 12-year-old before the assault, was lured to a party of white youths in a farm pasture on the night of Sept. 27, 2003, according to testimony in the criminal trials of two of the defendants last summer.
He was made to dance, assailed with racial epithets and punched in the head and knocked unconscious, witnesses testified. The assailants then dumped Johnson into the back of a pickup truck and left him by the side of a remote rural road. Johnson suffered a brain hemorrhage during the attack that impaired his ability to walk and speak. 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 the most serious felony charges and handed down misdemeanor convictions, with a recommended sentence of probation. The two other defendants, Dallas Chadwick Stone, then 18, and John Wesley Owens, then 19, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges 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.
“This town and this justice system totally failed Billy Ray and his family,” said Morris Dees, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala. “The jurors faced a man who got permanent brain damage from a brutal beating and was thrown on the side of the road like a dog. But they decided, ‘These good ole white boys, we don’t want to mess them up.’ “
In their lawsuit, the attorneys allege 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 in the case.
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