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 the racial epithet her group “Respect the Flag” repeatedly hurled at the party attendees, which included adults and small children.
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.
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, S.C., 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 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.”
Credit: Douglas County Sheriff’s Office
Credit: Douglas County Sheriff’s Office
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.”
Torres and Norton, who earlier were found guilty of violating the state’s street-gang terrorism law, continued to tremble and cry.
Their attorneys argued for lighter sentencing, saying two other defendants, Thomas Charles Summers and Lacey Paul Henderson II, had pleaded guilty to terroristic threat and battery charges and received less time than Norton and Torres were facing. Summers is serving four 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.”
Rosalind Bentley is an award-winning feature writer focusing on culture, arts and sometimes food, as they are expressed and experienced in Atlanta. She is a two-time James Beard Award finalist and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.