by: Steve Gehlbach, Tyisha Fernandes Updated:
DOUGLAS COUNTY, Ga. - A young couple was sentenced to years in prison for their part in a racially charged crime at a black child's birthday party.
Kayla Norton and Jose Torres, who have three children, were part of a larger group in July 2015 called Respect the Flag. Their convoy of trucks, flying the Confederate battle flag, pulled up to a birthday party for an 8-year-old black child, where they threatened the family and yelled racial slurs. At one point, Torres pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at the family.
A Douglas County judge sentenced the defendants to a year longer in prison than the state was seeking. 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.
Both Norton and Torres wept as their sentences were handed down Monday.
"Their actions were motivated by racial hatred," said Superior Court Judge William McClain.
Norton was sentenced on one count of violating Georgia's street gang act and one count of making terroristic threats. Torres was 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.
"This is behavior that even supporters of the Confederate battle flag can agree is criminal and shouldn't be allowed," Douglas County District Attorney Brian Fortner said in a statement.
The incident that led to the charges
Channel 2 Action News spoke to a woman who was at the birthday party in 2015.
Melissa Alford said at least seven pickup trucks displaying Confederate flags pulled up on her property on Campbellton Street. Their passengers were armed and threatened to “kill y’all [N-words].”
“I’m okay with the flags, I’m okay with riding around with the flags,” Alford said. “I’m not okay with them going around threatening people and using racial slurs. I’m not okay with that.“
The disruption of the birthday party took place less than a month after 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.
Emotional exchange in court
Channel 2’s Steve Gehlbach said Monday’s court proceeding was one of the most intense he’s ever seen.
Douglas County Assistant District Attorney David Emadi detailed how the group had gone on the drunken rampage through Douglas and Paulding counties on July 24 and July 25, 2015, in pickup trucks laden with Confederate battle flags.
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Emadi said the group threatened black 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 Wal-Mart and at a convenience store.
“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 frenzy. 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. "That is not me. That is not me. That is not him. I would never walk up to you and say those words to you and I am so sorry that happened to you."
Victim: "I forgive all of you"
Hyesha Bryant, 34, offered forgiveness to Norton and Torres. She had attended the birthday 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.”
Out of the dozen or more people involved in the incident, only four were charged with felonies.
Norton and Torres' attorneys pled for lighter sentencing, saying that two other defendants, Thomas Charles Summers and Lacey Paul Henderson II, had pled guilty to terroristic threat and battery charges and received lighter sentences than 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.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report.
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