DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. - As the two defendants wept, a Douglas County judge on Monday sentenced them to lengthy prison terms for their part in disrupting an African-American birthday party with Confederate flags, racial slurs and armed threats in 2015.
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, and cried when three of his family members took the stand to describe him as a hardworking plumber, volunteer football coach and devoted father of three. Norton, who is the mother of Torres' children, 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 a racial epithet her group, "Respect the Flag," repeatedly hurled at the party attendees, which included adults and small children.
Assistant District Attorney David Emadi detailed how the group had gone on a drunken, two-county rampage in pick-up trucks laden with Confederate battle flags through Paulding and Douglas counties on July 24 - 25, 2015.
Emadi said the group threatened African-American 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 Walmart and at a convenience store.
"Many good people in Paulding County saw you for what you are," McClain said before he handed down the sentence. "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. She now regretted the choice, 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 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 party, which was a celebration for an 8-year-oldcomplete with a bouncy castle and a 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."
Torres and Norton, who earlier had been found guilty of violating the state's street gang terrorism law, continued to tremble and cry.
Their attorneys pleaded for lighter sentencing, saying that two other defendants, Thomas Charles Summers and Lacey Paul Henderson II, had pleaded guilty to terroristic threat and battery charges and received lighter sentences that 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."
© 2018 Cox Media Group.