As the defendants wept uncontrollably, a Douglas County judge on Monday sentenced two people to lengthy prison terms for their part in disrupting an African-American birthday party with Confederate flags, racial slurs and armed threats in 2015.
Superior Court Judge William McClain castigated the two, Kayla Rae Norton, 25, and Jose Ismael 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, McClain ordered them to be permanently banished from Douglas County.
“Their actions were motivated by racial hatred,” said McClain.
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” repeated hurled at the party attendees, which included adults and small children.
Assistant District Attorney David Emadi detailed how the group had gone on a drunken, two-county rampage in pick-up trucked laden with Confederate battle flags through Paulding and Douglas counties over July 24 and July 25.
Emadi said the group threatened African-American motorists, yelled at them and walked up to one of their cars with a gun. They also threatened African American shoppers at a Paulding County Walmart and at a convenience store.“
Many good people in Paulding County saw you for what you are,” McClain said before he handed down the sentence. “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 frenzy. It was a 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 that, less than a month earlier, white supremacist Dylann Roof had massacred nine African-Americans at a Charleston church.
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 party, an 8-year-old’s celebration 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.”The Torres and Norton, who earlier were found guilty of violating the state’s street-gang terrorism law continued to tremble and cry.
Their attorneys pleaded for lighter sentencing, saying that two other defendants, Thomas Charles Summers and Lacey Paul Henderson II, had pleaded guilty to terroristic threat and battery charges and received lighter sentences that Norton and Torres were facing.
Summers, is serving 4 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.”
Kayla Rae Norton, 25, and Jose Ismael Torres, 26, were convicted this month of violating the state’s street-gang terrorism law and have been held without bond as they await sentencing. They are to appear before Superior Court Judge William McClain at 9:30 a.m. Monday.
The two are the last of 15 people charged in the confrontation, which took place in Douglasville in July 2015. Weeks before, the Charleston church massacre prompted a nationwide debate about the flag’s role in public life.
The decision to indict Norton and Torres under the street-gang statute was unusual, but Douglas County officials said it was appropriate.
“Members of the group pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at the victims,” Douglas County District Attorney Brian Fortner said in a statement. “They used racial slurs and threatened to kill some of the party-goers. They even threatened to kill children at the party. This is behavior that even supporters of the Confederate battle flag can agree is criminal and shouldn’t be allowed.”
Assistant District Attorney David Emadi said the case did not hinge on First Amendment rights — as some flag supporters have asserted — or the right to fly the battle flag. Emadi said the case is “about the fundamental right that all people in our community have to live free from fear that at any moment they will be assaulted, threatened and possibly killed simply because of the color of their skin.”
Georgia has no hate crimes statute.
Norton will be sentenced on one count of violating the street gang act and one count of making terroristic threats. Torres will be sentenced on three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, one count of terroristic threats and one count of violating the street gang act. The aggravated assault charges carry up to 20 years for each count and the street gang act carries between five and 20 years, said Emadi. A terroristic threat conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison.
The confrontation began on a sunny afternoon on which two groups of people gathered to celebrate two very different occasions. Melissa Alford was hosting a child’s birthday party at her house in Douglasville. Not far away in Paulding County, Torres and the others were attending a “Respect the Flag” rally.
On June 17, less than a month earlier, white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans at a historic black church in Charleston. Roof, who was sentenced to death for his crime, brandished the battle flag in several photographs that came to light after his arrest. He said it had been his intent to kill black people and start a race war.
In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, states across the South began removing Confederate flags from municipal buildings and spaces. Those removals triggered a backlash from flag proponents, who rallied around their embattled symbol. Into that climate Torres, Norton and the 13 others left their rally, flags streaming from their convoy of pickup trucks, and happened upon Alford’s party. The ensuing confrontation was captured on cellphone video.
Alford told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time that “if they want to make a statement that these flags mean something to them, I’m OK with that. But you’ve got to do it right. You can’t go around just blatantly terrorizing people.”
Thomas Charles Summers, 46, was part of the convoy and pleaded guilty to terroristic threats and battery charges. He is now serving a four-year prison sentence, Emadi said. Lacey Paul Henderson II, 38, also pleaded guilty to terroristic threats and is serving a two-year sentence.
Others pleaded to misdemeanor offenses; some, who Fortner said were “minimally involved,” were put into diversion programs requiring them to do community service.
Jeffery Wigley of Dallas, Ga., was placed in such a program, though he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he had not begun his service.
Wigley, 28, said the incident “got blew up way bigger than it was.” He said no one in Alford’s group appeared to be afraid, though they did seem angry.
He said he views the Confederate flag as a Christian flag, one that celebrates his ancestors who served in the Confederate army. It’s an emblem that he said means a lot to him and one he still believes should be flown.
“The Civil War was not about slavery,” Wigley said. “It was about independence and states rights. I believe we need truthful education in that area. There’s a lot of ignorance out there.
“I think black folks have been told it’s a flag of hate, but they don’t know the true history. They need to be educated and read up on it.”
Asked whether he would be open to hearing the perspective of African-Americans who had studied history and who believe the flag to be a divisive symbol, Wigley said he would.
“I would listen to what they had to say and understand their point of view, but I’d hope they’d listen to mine,” Wigley said.