By Linda Looney-Bond
A man who initially faced two misdemeanor charges and one felony charge for reportedly beating a woman at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Morrow, while yelling racial slurs, for now faces only misdemeanor charges.
Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said Wednesday, however, that she will review the case to determine whether to bring it to a grand jury for possible indictment on felony charges.
Morrow Police charged Troy Dale West, 47, of Poulan, Ga., with misdemeanor battery, misdemeanor disorderly conduct, and felony cruelty to children in the first degree after authorities say he beat, punched and kicked Tashawnea Hill, 35, of Jonesboro, in the foyer of the restaurant on Sept. 9.
Police say the incident occurred in the presence of Hill's 7-year-old daughter, who was with Hill as she entered the restaurant.
Clayton County Magistrate Judge Bobby Simmons said Wednesday that he reduced the cruelty-to-children charge to a misdemeanor when West came before him for a first-appearance hearing Sept. 10, because state law did not allow for a felony charge based on the circumstances of the case.
"Anytime there is a witnessing by a minor of any act of battery, that is cruelty to children, but that is a misdemeanor," Simmons said Wednesday.
"If he [West] was actually abusing the child, and caused the child to have excessive pain, then it would be cruelty to children in the first degree, which is a felony," Simmons said.
The reported attack occurred as Hill was entering the restaurant with her daughter, and West was leaving the establishment, located at 1458 Southlake Plaza Drive, according to Capt. James Callaway of the Morrow Police Department.
As West was leaving, the exit door came close to striking Hill's daughter, Callaway said.
According to witness accounts, Hill politely asked West to be careful, at which time West "became enraged" and began to beat Hill in front of her daughter, while "screaming racial slurs," Callaway said in a statement.
West is Caucasian, and Hill is African American, according to a Morrow Police Department report.
"Offender then caused substantial physical harm and visible bodily harm to Hill by striking Hill in the face (head) area, leaving swollen area to Hill's forehead and left cheek area, by offender's fist," Morrow Police Officer Anthony Werbenec wrote in a warrantless arrest affidavit.
West told police that he hit Hill because she spit on him, Werbenec wrote in the police report. However, according to the report, witnesses told police that Hill did not spit on West.
The incident was captured on the restaurant's surveillance cameras, according to the report.
"I observed Hill's daughter crying uncontrollably and her body shaking/trembling ... from witnessing the incident," Werbenec wrote in the police report.
"[Tashawnea] Hill needed to receive medical attention promptly," the report states. Morrow emergency medical services personnel treated Hill on the scene, according to the report. Hill said she later went to Southern Regional Medical Center for treatment.
West was arrested and transported to the Clayton County Jail. Bond was set at $10,500, and he was released Sept. 10 on bond, with conditions that he not contact Hill or her immediate family members, according to court records.
Clayton County Solicitor General Tasha Mosley said she is transferring the case from her office to the office of the district attorney.
"It's in the process of, right now, being transferred to [District Attorney] Tracy Lawson," Mosley said Wednesday. "It's being transferred because clearly we know a felony has been committed, just from the facts.
"Based on the information that was relayed to me, there definitely appears to be an aggravated assault. The law also allows for the hands to be considered a weapon, which can be an aggravated assault, and that's a felony," Mosley said.
"With the kicking and punching, there was definitely an aggravated assault. I think the police officers did a great job. It's basically our [prosecutors'] duty, once we get the case, to see if there are charges that are missing that are more appropriate," she said.
"I'm going to review witness statements, evidence, the police reports, and the video, and make a determination as to whether additional felony and misdemeanor charges should be presented to the grand jury," Lawson said Wednesday.
The FBI, at the request of Morrow Police, has launched an investigation into possible hate crime charges in the case, according to FBI Spokesman Stephen Emmett.
"The information gathered during the FBI's investigation will be reviewed jointly by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the northern district of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in [Washington] D.C.," Emmett said Wednesday.
A group of civil rights leaders met with Lawson Wednesday regarding the case.
"We're pleased that the district attorney understands this is a very serious case in Clayton County," said activist and former Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman.
"Our concern still is this case happened on Sept. 9. We believe that justice needs to be swift and decisive. This case needs to be indicted by the district attorney and taken to the grand jury immediately," Boazman said.
Boazman, who was joined by members of the Rainbow Push Coalition in the meeting with Lawson, said he will ask the Morrow Police Department to release the surveillance tape of the incident. He said he believes prosecutors should file more serious charges against West.
"We don't believe the charges are adequate," he said. "This woman was savagely beaten. This is an aggravated assault charge. She was also denied the ability to leave from a confined space, so we believe that not only a felony assault charge should be added, there should be a felony false imprisonment."
Lawson said Wednesday that the case would likely go before a grand jury "between one to two months" from now.
Boazman also called for a meeting with Cracker Barrel "senior management," to discuss restaurant security.
"They are head-quartered in Lebanon, Tenn. They need to get to Atlanta and make sure that everybody understands that this is not a culture. Cracker Barrel has had a history of racially intolerant issues," Boazman said.
A Cracker Barrel official had said Tuesday the restaurant is not to blame for the alleged incident.
"It is awful when something like this happens anywhere, let alone in our store," said Julie Davis, corporate communications director for Cracker Barrel's home office in Lebanon, Tenn.
"Cracker Barrel takes appropriate security measures and maintains excellent relations with local law enforcement officers," she said.
West is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Sept. 28 at 3 p.m., in Clayton County Magistrate Court.
Reached by phone Wednesday at a number listed as belonging to West, a woman who identified herself as West's mother said he did not live there, and did not have a home phone number. She said she had no comment on the case.