Birthday parties are supposed to be happy times for children. Friends visit, games are played, gifts are given, candles are blown out, and the day becomes a fond memory for all who attended. Such a party was held for an unnamed African-American child in Douglasville, Georgia on July 25, 2015. There were hamburgers and hotdogs, a snow cone machine, a bouncy castle, and a DJ. This seemed to be a picture-perfect birthday celebration…until a gang showed up.
Jose “Joe” Torres and Kayla Norton were among the group of people known as “Respect the Flag.” While candles were being placed on a birthday cake in Douglasville, members of Respect the Flag were in a neighboring county, strapping Confederate Battle flags to the backs of their pickup trucks and preparing for what they say was a ride to celebrate the flag’s heritage. As the group rode around waving their flags, drinking alcohol, and doing whatever it is that one does at such flag-heritage celebrations, things started to turn ugly.
It was not long before residents became concerned about this convoy, and began calling 911 with fears of something bad happening. Police initially found the convoy traveling south on Highway 92 from Paulding County into Douglas County. Law enforcement followed the groups for a while, noting that every truck was flying a rebel flag. However, no criminal activity was observed so the officers stopped following the group.
Torres retrieved a 12-gauge pump shotgun…aimed it at the birthday party group and threatened to kill them.
Shortly thereafter, the group came upon the 8-year-old’s birthday party. According to witnesses at the party, the convoy members yelled racial slurs at them as they drove by. The drivers of the trucks parked nearby, where the situation escalated. A small subset of the group – which included Torres – threatened to kill those at the party while continuing to hurl epithets. According to a statement by Douglas County prosecutors, Torres retrieved a 12-gauge pump shotgun with a tactical pistol grip stock from his truck, aimed it at the birthday group and threatened to kill them. Others in his group, according to prosecutors, stated, “the little ones can get one too,” referring to the children present. Based on evidence later presented in court, racial slurs were also used in these threats as well.
By the time police arrived to the birthday party, the gun was no longer present. Police observed the convoy arguing with the party attendees, but received conflicting statements about what led up to the altercation. Video of the confrontation was given to the police. No one was injured and one person in the convoy was arrested on unrelated charges.
Police uncovered evidence that members of Respect the Flag were white supremacists.
Douglasville police reviewed the video of the confrontation and continued their investigation to see if any criminal charges were warranted. During the investigation, police uncovered evidence that members of Respect the Flag were white supremacists. This evidence consisted of social media discussions about attending KKK rallies, becoming members of Skinheads Nation, and several disparaging comments about African-Americans as a whole.
Georgia is one of a few states in the U.S. that does not have a hate crime statute. Hate crime statutes act as punishment enhancers, meaning the increase the penalty for a crime committed against a person based on the victim’s personal characteristics (race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.). So, on October 9, 2015, a Douglas County grand jury indicted fifteen people – including Torres – on one count each of Violation of the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act and Terroristic Threats. The language for the street gang charge alleges that the accused, “…being associated with the Respect the Flag, a criminal street gang, did unlawfully participate in criminal gang activity, specifically Terroristic Threats…which is defined as Racketeering Activity…contrary to the laws of [the] State…” The terroristic threats charge alleges that the defendants, “…did unlawfully threaten to commit a crime of violence to persons attending a party at 9037 Campbellton St. with the purpose of terrorizing those individuals and in reckless disregard for the risk of causing such terror, contrary to the laws of [the] State…” In a separate indictment, Kayla Norton was charged with one count of Violation of the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act.
A Douglas County jury convicted Torres and Norton on all counts…
At trial, Torres tried to argue self-defense. He claimed that he carried the shotgun for protection, because he feared for his safety. The argument was that the altercation started when partygoers threw rocks at the trucks. This claim was never substantiated. Rejecting the self-defense argument, a Douglas County jury convicted Torres and Norton on all counts on February 6, 2017.
This past Monday, February 27, 2017, Torres and Norton learned their fates. At the emotional hearing, the defendants and victims both spoke on their respective behalves. Hyesha Bryant, a guest at the birthday party, tearfully told Torres and Norton, “What you did affected my life. It affected my children’s lives.” Bryant also offered forgiveness, telling the defendants, “I forgive you. I forgive all of you. I don’t have any hate in my heart. Life is too short for that.”
When it was her turn to speak, Norton apologized, saying, “I want you all to know that is not me. This is not me, that is not him (Torres). I would never walk up to you and say those words to you. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’m so sorry.” Norton told the victims that if she could take it all back, she would.
At the sentencing hearing, Judge William McClain noted that the defendants’ actions “were motivated by racial hatred.” He told the defendants, “If you drive around town with a Confederate flag, yelling the n-word, you know how it’s going to be interpreted. It’s inexplicable to me that you weren’t arrested by the police that day.” He then sentenced Torres to 20 years in prison, with seven years suspended. Judge McClain sentenced Norton to 10 years in prison, with four suspended. When they are released, they are banned from Douglas County for the remainder of their lives. Both Torres and Norton sobbed as the sentences were read.
At the conclusion of the trial, Douglas County District Attorney Brian Fortner praised the jury for staying focused on the issues despite all the many distractions throughout the trial. In a statement, Mr. Fortner said, “Many people tried to make the case about simply flying the Confederate Battle Flag. However, it wasn’t about that at all… [This was] not about flying a flag but it was about pointing a shotgun at other people and threatening to kill them because of the color of their skin.” Mr. Fortner urged the entire community to continue standing against such “dangerous and racially motivated” behavior.
There have been mixed reactions to the sentences, based on comments left on Mr. Fortner’s official Facebook page. Some feel that the punishment was appropriate, while others feel that it was excessive. One commenter stated:
“To all the people on here saying the punishment was unjust. Let’s be real, if it had been any other terrorist group committing these felonies you guys wouldn’t bat an eye if they went away for life….but when the terrorist [sic] look like you all of a sudden you get a soft heart.”
Another person said:
“Did they actually attack anyone or just [sic] guilty of being racists? Not condoning their actions by any means but I’m not sure the punishment fit the crime here. If they attacked the kids or something, let them rot, but just being ignorant racists shouldn’t constitute a 20 year sentence. Does that not seem a little extreme?? What am I missing? If everyone in Douglas County that is ignorant and racist (on both sides of the fence) had to serve 20 years, they’d have to build many new jails.”
The remaining members of Respect the Flag who were indicted are either serving active prison sentences or still have cases pending. Their exact dispositions are unknown.