The Price of a Punch
East Texas Jury Awards Mentally Challenged Black
Man $9 Million
for Beating at Hands of White Youths
By JIM AVILA and TERI WHITCRAFT
ABC News Law and Justice UnitBilly Ray Johnson, right,
brain damage in a savage attack by white youths.
April 21, 2007 — - For most of his life, Billy Ray Johnson, a 42-year-old
mentally challenged man who loved to dance and always wore a smile, could be
found hanging out by the old courthouse on the square in the East Texas town
That was before he was beaten and left for dead in a ditch by four white
men who were half his age. The assault damaged Johnson's brain, but his
attackers were given a slap on the wrist -- 60 days behind bars for one; 30
days for the others.
Yesterday, after four years and two criminal trials, Johnson finally got
justice. After deliberating for 3½ hours in the old Linden courthouse, a jury
of 12 awarded Billy Ray Johnson the biggest verdict the town had ever seen: $3
million for his past and future medical care, and $6 million for pain and
"I think this jury told us that whether you are rich, poor, black or
white … handicapped or not … you stand equal in the face of the law,"
said Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who
represented Johnson pro-bono in the civil trial.
A Gentle Spirit
Those who knew Johnson before the attack describe a gentle soul with a weak
"Billy Ray was a loving, caring person. He was a happy person. He
loved dancing, he loved imitating driving cars," said Lenda Beecham,
Johnson's first cousin. "Billy Ray would do anything you asked him to do.
Anything. He thought everybody loved him. That's why he would take the chance
to go anywhere with anybody."
An Invitation to a Beating
On Sept. 28, 2003, Johnson was waiting for a ride at the Country Store when
19-year-old Wes Owens invited him to a "pasture party" at his nearby
farm, promising free beer. Johnson agreed to go -- but only after Owens
promised to bring him back later.
What Johnson didn't know was that he was the evening's entertainment. His
love of music, and dancing -- heartfelt to him -- was comical to others, and
the young white men gathered around the bonfire that night wanted Johnson to
dance. As the beer flowed, the night turned ugly.
"They tried to get him to pick up hot sticks from the fire, they had him
dancing a jig to a song," said Dees. "They were calling him funny
names. They gave him a beer and then some guy knocked the beer out of his
In an exclusive interview with ABC News Law and Justice Unit, Wes Owens
described the scene: "[Johnson] said he'd leave when he finished his
beer, and that's when [Dallas] Stone knocked the beer out of his hand,
[saying] 'Your beer is through, now you can leave.'"
Owens said that's when Colt Amox -- a former high school pitcher -- drew
back and threw a sucker punch that Johnson didn't see coming. A second later,
Johnson was flat on his back.
Old Dump Road
For the next hour, Johnson lay on the ground, unconscious and bleeding from
his mouth, as the four young men debated what to do.
"Now he's been down there, on this cold ground, nobody's put a blanket
on him, a jacket on him, or take him to a warm car," said Dees in his
opening arguments. "And finally, [Corey Hicks] says, 'Let's throw this
n----- in a ditch.' … So Amox and Owens grabbed him, just about how you drag
a dead dog, they grabbed one by the feet, one by the arms and pitched him up
into the truck. That's probably how he broke his collar bone that night."
With Johnson's unconscious body in the bed of a pickup, a caravan of three
trucks drove along the pitch black East Texas roads. When they reached Old
Dump Road, they stopped, and put Johnson on the ground next to some old tires.
Then they drove away.
"There was a lot of tension, lot of fear and a lot of lack of good
judgment -- alcohol -- and like I said, nerves, being scared," said Wes
Owens. "My biggest regret is just not taking more action as far as Billy
Ray's concerned … stepping up when a man would've stepped up, and say,
'Okay, this is enough.'"
For several hours, Johnson lay on the ground, shivering in the cold, barely
breathing, his pulse rate low. The next morning, when paramedics responded to
the scene, they discovered that Johnson had been placed on a pile of fire ants
-- aggravating his condition with more than 200 bites. He nearly died and
suffered permanent brain damage.
A Slap on the Wrist
At first, it seemed the attackers might go unpunished. When anonymous calls
alerted the police that something terribly wrong had happened to Johnson, the
attackers conspired to concoct a lie. When they were arrested and charged with
aggravated assault, their defense was self-defense. Johnson, they claimed, was
In the criminal trials that followed, Owens and Stone pled guilty, offering
state's evidence. All four attackers were convicted of assault by omission --
or in less legal terms, not helping him. Their punishment was 30 to 60 days
"The initial verdict sent a message that things hadn't changed much in
the Deep South when a poor, powerless black person faces popular,
well-entrenched white establishment," said Dees. "They should have
gotten 20 years in prison. … That's what most people would have gotten in
this case, had the facts been shown."
Johnson's Day in Court
This past week, Dees and his team from the Southern Poverty Law Center
tried to right what many considered a devastating wrong. Over four days, they
grilled the defendants, offering expert medical testimony along with new
witnesses who testified about the attack and the cover-up.
Before the civil trial, Owens and Stone settled, but Hicks and Amox were
found responsible. In a multi-million dollar verdict that will take care of
Johnson for the rest of his dark nights in East Texas, the jury gave 9 million
reasons why a beating of an innocent black man should never happen again.
Juror Lacretia Hefley said the jury wanted to send a message "that
this was not acceptable -- that in this day and age that we need to have come
to a point that color does not matter -- not right or wrong but just that it
does not matter at all. … And by saying this we are saying that Billy Ray
deserved better than this … and these young men took that away from
"People like Billy Ray have the same rights and should have the same
opportunity to receive justice as everyone else," said Dees. "We
hope it is a message to people that hold the power … that when you do
injustice to people like Billy Ray, you do an injustice to the whole community
and the whole system."
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