Just a month after Dylann Roof shot down nine African-American worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church, Jose Ismael Torres and Kayla Rae Norton gathered with 13 other friends to make a statement about the Confederate battle flag.
Roof had championed it and said he wanted to start a race war. Over two days in July 2015, Norton and Torres’ group, which called itself “Respect the Flag,” decorated their convoy of pickup trucks and went on what authorities described as a drunken rampage through Paulding and Douglas counties.
To make their point about their right to fly the battle flag and what they thought of African-Americans, they threatened black motorists with epithets and a gun, heckled black customers at a Paulding County Wal-Mart with the same epithet, and repeated their actions at a convenience store. The store manager called 911.
Then they happened upon the outdoor birthday party for an 8-year-old African-American child at his grandmother’s house in Douglasville. The confrontation that ensued, and its aftermath, culminated Monday with lengthy prison sentences for Torres and Norton.
As the defendants wept uncontrollably, Douglas County Superior Court Judge William McClain castigated Norton, 25, and Torres, 26, for perpetrating what he called a hate crime. He sentenced Torres to 20 years, with 13 to serve in prison; Norton was given 15 years, with six to serve. Upon their release, they will be banished from Douglas County, McClain said.
“Their actions were motivated by racial hatred,” the judge said.
McClain also criticized the Douglasville police for not arresting members of the Confederate flag group at the scene that day.
Though Georgia is one of three states that does not have a hate crime law, McClain said he had to consider the motivation of the incident, one that did not revolve around free speech.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that this occurred after the Charleston incident,” McClain said. “You took what you think was the public space into the private space and you brought it to their front door. Families and neighbors have a right to celebrate a child’s birthday in peace.”
Torres did not address the court during the proceedings, only crying when three of his family members took the stand to describe him as a hardworking plumber, volunteer football coach and devoted father of three. His children’s mother, Norton, however, addressed several people who’d attended the birthday party and had come to witness the sentencing.
“I do accept responsibility for what I’ve done," Norton said, often choking on her words as she spoke directly to the group. “What happened to you is absolutely awful. From mother to mother, I cannot imagine having to explain what that word means.”
Norton was referring to a racial epithet her group “Respect the Flag” repeatedly hurled at the party attendees, who included adults and small children.
Assistant District Attorney David Emadi detailed how the group had gone on a drunken, two-county spree July 24 and July 25. Emadi said that by the time the group reached the birthday party, they pulled a black, tactical pump shotgun out of one of the trucks. The shotgun matched one found in Torres’ truck later, Emadi said.
Emadi said Torres and two others passed the gun around, holding it as they and the others taunted not only the adults but the children.
“‘We’re going to kill some (racial epithet)s today,’” Emadi said, quoting witnesses present during the standoff. “We’ll blow the head off the little bastards. We’ll kill all the little (racial epithet)s.”
Someone passed ammunition to Torres and he leveled the shotgun at the group and yelled, “I’ll kill all of you (racial epithet)s,” Emadi said.
Later, Norton, tried to cover up what happened in several social media posts, saying they would all be “caught up in the lies” they told the media after the incident captured media attention, Emadi said in court.
“Many good people in Paulding County saw you for what you are,” McClain said before he handed down the sentences. “Everywhere you went, 911 call centers were flooded with calls.”
McClain then quoted one of the callers.
‘“I want to report a hate crime,’” he said.
Norton and her children’s father continued to cry. The two are not married.
As she addressed the victims, Norton said she and Torres made a choice to attend both days of her group’s spree. It was an option she now regretted, she said.
“The worst decision I’ve ever made in my life was to not walk away when I had the chance,” Norton said.
McClain noted that Torres and Norton acted with the full knowledge of Roof’s actions.
And just as several members of the victims’ families in that case publicly forgave Roof in a South Carolina courtroom, Hyesha Bryant, 34, offered forgiveness to Norton and Torres. She had attended the birthday party, complete with a jumpy castle and snow cone machine.
She also reminded them of the choices they made over two days that ultimately led them to McClain’s packed Douglas County courtroom.
“I never thought this would be something I’d have to endure in 2017,” Bryant began. “As adults and parents, we have to instill in our children the values of right and wrong. That moment you had to choose to leave, you stayed.”
Then Bryant clutched her chest, leaned forward toward Torres and Norton and looked them in the eyes.
“I forgive all of you,” she said. “I don’t have any hate in my heart. Life is too short for that.”
Torres and Norton, who earlier this month were found guilty of violating the state’s street-gang terrorism law, continued to tremble and cry.
Their attorneys pleaded for lighter sentences, saying that two other defendants, Thomas Charles Summers and Lacey Paul Henderson II, had pleaded guilty to terroristic threat and battery charges and received less time than Norton and Torres were facing. Summers is serving four years in prison and Henderson is serving two.
McClain, however, said Torres and Norton would have to answer for their behavior. He also called into question the Douglasville Police Department’s decision not to arrest any of the “Respect the Flag” group that day. He called it “inexplicable” and “a very bad mistake.”
Looking down from the bench at Torres and Norton, McClain said he was perplexed by the police officers’ decision not to arrest the group.
“Why you weren’t arrested that day but allowed to drive off in the protection of the authorities,” McClain said he didn’t understand.
And he noted the tenor of the times in which the case has played out.
“With the tension in this country, the absolute last thing we need is people riding around with the Confederate flag threatening people,” McClain said. “It was grace that there wasn’t a lot of dead bodies on Campbellton Street that day.”
Douglasville police defend their response
The Douglasville Police Department issued a statement Monday afternoon defending its handling of the confrontation, saying its officers did arrest one person on an outstanding warrant unrelated to the party stand-off.
Because the situation was “volatile,” officers focused on separating the party-goers from the flag group because “there was a high potential of physical altercations because many of those involved were highly emotional and agitated,” the department said in a statement.
Police worked on the case for several months, dedicating a team of seven investigators.
“Because of the seriousness of this case to our community, we wanted to get this case right the first time,” the statement said. “Officers and supervisors at the scene determined that it was prudent to get both sides of the story and gather more evidence, rather than making hasty decisions that ultimately could have jeopardized the case. The decision to conduct a rigorous investigation led to a successful outcome that best served our community.”