May 13, 3:09 AM (ET)


LINDEN, Texas (AP) - After a mentally disabled black man was found beaten, unconscious, and shivering on a fire ant mound in 2003, four white men charged in the crime could have faced 10 years in prison. But folks in this poor, pine-locked Texas hamlet of 2,300 say they knew better.

On Friday, the four young men accused of severely injuring 44-year-old Billy Ray Johnson during a late-night pasture party are expected to be sentenced to probation or brief jail time after juries rejected more serious charges and recommended suspended sentences for two of them. The victim survived the attack but can't walk without help or speak clearly.

Some white residents believe it is a fair outcome for a few "good boys" from prominent families with no previous legal trouble. But other residents, blacks and whites, say the sentences are far from fair and just another example of justice being tainted by small-town politics, racism and a court system that favors whites.

"They devalued his life. A lot of people might not of thought it was worth much, but it was his. And they got nothing," said black resident Alma Linwood, a lab technician who lives on the country road where Johnson was found. "It's actually not a surprise. It's pretty much what I figured would happen. That's just the way it is."

A judge is scheduled Friday to sentence defendants John Wesley "Wes" Owens, 22, Dallas Stone, 19, James Cory Hicks, 26, and Christopher Colt Amox, 20.

Authorities have said that Johnson, well-known around town as a friendly but "slow" character who loved dancing, was lured to an all-white pasture party where underage drinkers fed him alcohol and picked on him.

"I feel like he was invited to be taunted because of his limited mental capacity, not so much his race," said District Attorney Randal Lee, who is white. "He was the entertainment for the night."

Owens and Stone, who pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony charge of injury to a disabled person by omission, testified that Amox and Johnson were arguing about country versus rap music when Amox told Johnson to leave.

Then Amox swung at Johnson, who fell and began vomiting and gagging, according to testimony. The men loaded Johnson into a truck and drove to an old tire dump, where they left him on an ant hill.

Doctors soon determined he had suffered a concussion that, without medical attention, could have killed him, Lee said. Johnson was hospitalized for weeks. He now resides in a nursing home, undergoes rehabilitation and is unable to walk without help or speak clearly.

Amox, facing the same felony charge as Owens and Stone, was convicted of misdemeanor assault in March. The jury recommended a suspended one-year jail sentence, meaning no time behind bars.

This month, a different jury found Hicks guilty of the felony charge, which carries a penalty of two to 10 years in prison. That jury recommended that Hicks' three-year prison sentence also be suspended.

Owens and Stone agreed in their plea deals to 30 days in the county jail and a $2,000 fine.

Lee, the district attorney, said the juries' decisions were in line with other juries who sympathize with first-time offenders. And he pointed out that the so-called beating involved one punch.

"This is not that horrible of an outcome. They were all convicted, they'll all be on probation, they'll all have a criminal record, they'll all be watched," he said. "They didn't get off scot-free."

Dennis Spears, 59, a white man whose owns a countertop business in town, said he was struck by the verdicts but empathized with the plight of young boys making bad choices under peer pressure.

"Only thing I saw about it, they oughtn't to have dumped him. They could have taken him to the hospital just as easy," Spears said as he drank coffee at a country store with friends. "Things just got out of hand."

But R.C. Taylor, a white retired heavy equipment operator and barber, said the boys didn't deserve harsh punishment.

"It's been handled good as far as I'm concerned. They ought not to have been tried at all," Taylor said. "I think they should be turned loose, set free, with a slap on the wrist. It was just one of those things."

Others say that's the kind of attitude that led to the assault of Johnson.

"Whites stay with whites, blacks stay with blacks and the American flag still flies like a rebel flag," said Donovan Epps, a black 22-year-old hanging out with friends at Dairy Queen. "Getting probation is just like not getting tried at all. You leave a person for dead, that's like murder."