In July 2015, Kayla Norton and Jose Torres, and a group they called “Respect the Flag,” drove up to the birthday party with the battle-flag flying from their trucks and began threatening the family while shouting racial slurs. There were at least seven trucks in the convoy. Torres pointed a shotgun at the family as well as at young children present at the celebration.
The incident was part of a two-day spree by the like-minded people, driving around harassing people of color throughout the area. Several witnesses called 9-1-1 to report the group, including a witness who referred to their actions as a “hate crime,” in their call.
Norton was convicted of one count of violating Georgia's street gang act and one count of making terroristic threats, WSB-TV reports. Torres was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, one charge of making terroristic threats, and an additional count of violating the street gang act.
On Monday, Superior Court Judge William McClain opted to hand down sentences that were even longer than the state requested. Torres was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and will serve at least 13, while Norton was sentenced to 15 years, and will serve at least six. Additionally, the couple is banned from ever returning to the county, upon their release.
"Their actions were motivated by racial hatred," Judge McClain stated during the sentencing.
The incident took place less than one month after white-supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine unarmed black worshippers at a historic black church in South Carolina, in his self-affirmed attempt to “start a race war.” Photographs of Roof posted to social media prior to the attack showed him posing with the Confederate battle flag, sparking a debate on whether the flag is a symbol of hate.
"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.
During the sentencing hearing, Norton made a tearful apology to her victims.
“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."
One of the victims, Hyesha Bryant, 34, who was at the birthday party, offered the couple forgiveness.
“I forgive all of you,” she said, looking the perpetrators in the eyes in the courtroom. “I don’t have any hate in my heart. Life is too short for that.”