Strings Attached

Will Linden move on to become a music mecca or fall beneath the weight of a racist past?

"They made a monkey out of him," Wilson says. He says the defendants egged each other on with taunts of "Hit the nigger! Hit the monkey!"

But one witness at the party, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Press that Johnson was dancing of his own accord.

"When I was there, he was dancing and talking, and we weren't making him dance to embarrass him," the witness says. "They portrayed it that we made him dance around like a monkey and stuff. That's horseshit."

Don Henley was the 2001 Wildflower Trails grand marshal.
Paul Ridenour
Don Henley was the 2001 Wildflower Trails grand marshal.
Bowden says he can bring stars to Linden.
Daniel Kramer
Bowden says he can bring stars to Linden.

Wilson is upset that the district attorney isn't pursuing hate-crime charges, a decision Wilson believes was made to spare the town more bad press.

But Lee says the charges of hate crime and injury to a disabled person both carry lifetime sentences. The latter is easier to prosecute because, he says, "you just have to show that they knew he was disabled and that they intentionally hurt him."

Reactions to the charges were split along racial lines. Many blacks felt that four white defendants would never be appropriately punished for harming a black person. They thought the aggravated assault charge was not enough. Many whites looked at it and saw four otherwise fine young men who just made some bad decisions. They called it a tragedy, not just for Johnson, but for the defendants as well.

"They made some poor judgment," McWaters says. "They should've loaded [Johnson] up and took him to the hospital or called the ambulance."

Linden Mayor Wilford Penny, 72, calls it an "unfortunate situation," chalking it up to too much alcohol.

From Penny's understanding, one of the four defendants said something harsh to Johnson, who in turn "remarked back and it just got out of hand."

Despite the fact that the defendants are facing the possibility of spending the rest of their lives in prison, some blacks continue to believe that the defendants have been charged with lesser crimes, they're still unaware that the young men face life in prison, and they dismiss the fact that the D.A.'s criminal investigator is black and that a black assistant district attorney will try the case. Even though Mayor Penny's predecessor was black, some black residents don't feel they are represented in local government.

"I think that's somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction to the decades of not having anything to say when a black person died," says Clyde Lee, the Texarkana attorney. "The key to it is, in the vast majority of black people's minds in northeast Texas, law enforcement is not their friend. Now, when you have a suspicious death…no matter what is the true reason of the death, the community as a whole believe there was some foul play. And in their minds, that burden never shifts, because they have always been powerless to do anything about it anyway."

Lee is convinced that the media attention influenced the D.A.'s decision to pursue first-degree felony convictions.

"But for the fact that this was publicized, the charges would not have been severe… Because again, another Southern tradition is 'boys will be boys,' " he says. "You've got guys doing the act, and the way it's perceived by the victim, the victim's family and anybody that could possibly be related to the victim is 'this is overtly racist.' The way it's perceived by the defendants, their families and anybody possibly related to them is 'boys will be boys.' Therein lies the rub. That's why you can't bring those kind of people to the table with each other. 'Cause they don't even see the same world. And the sad part about it is, the poor white man and the poor black man in East Texas have far more in common than they'll ever have against each other. But they are manipulated by both the current political atmospheres nationally and the traditional cultural lifestyles to never be able to recognize the things that they have in common."

The trial for Hicks and Amox is scheduled for June 28. Owens and Stone will be tried August 23.

Although media attention faded shortly after the assault was first reported, there are those who are concerned that everything will kick up again as soon as Hicks and Amox enter the courthouse.

The general feeling among blacks and whites is that the defendants will get probation.

If they walk, Wilson predicts, the black community will react with a riot on the level of the Rodney King verdict. He's already resigned himself to the fact that Johnson will need someone to take care of him the rest of his life.

"Right now, he's like a baby," Wilson says, explaining that Johnson can barely walk, is not gaining any weight and continues to soil himself.

Johnson cries a lot, Wilson says. Instead of listening to his music, he'll hobble into his bedroom, sit on his bed and weep.

In the words of his brother, Curtis Stevenson, Johnson is "more retarded…he don't understand stuff. You can't understand what he's saying."

Based on Lee's experiences in Cass County, he doesn't expect a jury to recommend harsh punishment.

"We have two different questions," he says. "Are people overtly racist in East Texas? The answer is, not very often. But if you ask the question, Do black people feel like they get a fair shake in the system? Of course they don't, because racism is institutionalized in the criminal justice system [in Cass County] just like it is everywhere else in the country."

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