By Linda Looney-Bond
Representatives of several civil rights groups have renewed a call for the release to the public of surveillance video of an alleged beating that took place at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Morrow on Sept. 9.
The Rainbow Push Coalition, NAACP, SCLC, National Action Network, and other community groups made the demand during a press conference Friday outside the restaurant, located at 1458 Southlake Plaza Drive.
The groups also called for a meeting with senior Cracker Barrel management, and for charges in the case to be upgraded from misdemeanors to felonies.
Troy Dale West, 47, of Poulan, Ga., is accused of beating, punching, and kicking Tashawnea Hill, 35, of Jonesboro, in the foyer of the popular restaurant, while yelling racial slurs at her. The reported beating took place in the presence of her 7-year-old daughter. West is Caucasion and Hill is African American.
Morrow Police charged West with misdemeanor battery, misdemeanor disorderly conduct, and felony cruelty to children in the first degree. He was arrested at the scene, transported to the Clayton County Jail, and later released on bond.
A Clayton County Magistrate Judge later reduced the cruelty to children charge from a felony to a misdemeanor, stating that the facts of the case did not support a felony charge, according to state law.
"The Morrow Police have failed this lady [Hill], and now they're failing the community," said activist and former Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman Friday, prior to the press conference. "If they're proud of the work they did on that day, then fine, release the tape and let us decide whether or not the assault was a felonious assault or not, because they reviewed the tape, and decided it did not warrant a felony charge," Boazman said.
Later, Boazman opened the press conference on behalf of the community groups present, saying that Cracker Barrel, as the owner or the video, also has a responsibility to release the videotape. "There are different versions about what happened here. We've been told that Cracker Barrel employees saw what happened, but they did not render any aid," said Boazman. "Maybe they were scared. Maybe it violates their protocol. We don't know," he said.
Following the press conference, Capt. James Callaway, of the Morrow Police Department, said, in a phone interview, that the police department no longer has custody of the video.
"The Clayton County District Attorney's office has that right now. And the FBI and the Clayton County District Attorney's Office have asked that it not be released, because it's still under investigation," Callaway said. "The motive behind all this is that we don't taint a jury in Clayton County," he said.
The FBI, at the request of the Morrow Police Department, is investigating the case for possible hate-crime charges, according to an FBI spokesman.
Julie Davis, spokesperson for Cracker Barrel's home office in Lebanon Tenn., said through an assistant Friday that she was not available for comment, referring callers to a press release on the company's web site for comment on the matter.
"Cracker Barrel believes that what happened is reprehensible. It could have happened anywhere," the restaurant chain said in the statement. "We immediately gave police significant evidence by providing them with the surveillance video, and we will provide that to any other law enforcement agencies involved in the case."
According to the press release, Cracker Barrel policy only allows the release of surveillance video to law enforcement officials, and as required by law.
"The Clayton County District Attorney has expressed a strong preference that Cracker Barrel not release the tape to the media; we are complying to ensure the integrity of the investigation and the legal process," the statement said.
"To my knowledge, it's [ the surveillance video] been given to us, at our request, by the Morrow Police Department, who had received it from the Cracker Barrel representatives," said Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson.
"It's not subject to open records requests because it's a pending prosecution, so ethically I'm prohibited from releasing the video," Lawson said Friday. "I have made this case a priority for my office and the investigation is ongoing," added Lawson, who met earlier in the week with Derrick Boazman, Rainbow Push Coalition Southeast Regional Director Joe Beasley, and former state lawmaker Gail Davenport, who is also president of the Rainbow Push Coalition that represents Clayton County and other Southern Crescent chapters.
Dexter Matthews, first vice president of the Georgia NAACP, and president of the Clayton County NAACP, expressed concern that the charges against West have not been upgraded to felonies. "We support justice. We want to make sure this gentleman does not get off light in this case," Matthews said.
Lawson said Friday that her office is reviewing all of the evidence to consider whether felony charges will be filed. "We would prepare an indictment with the charges we believe the evidence supports, and we'd present that to the grand jury to decide," she said, adding that, following the investigation by her office, she expects to take the case to the grand jury for indictment within the next month or two.
"If he's indicted on felonies, I can ask the Superior Court judge for him[West] to be arrested on those new charges," she said.
Following Friday's press conference by civil rights groups, Morrow Police Capt. James Callaway said he had begun a dialogue with the NAACP. "I've sent messages to the NAACP," Callaway said. He said he received a phone call Friday from Georgia NAACP President Edward Dubose. "It was a great conversation, and we'd like the chance to sit down face-to-face to discuss the case. We spoke for about ten minutes," Callaway said. "The doors of the Morrow Police Department are open to anybody that wants to come talk to us," he said.
Dubose returned a phone call to the Clayton News Daily Friday and left a phone message confirming his conversation with Callaway. "Yes, we did talk. It was an excellent conversation, and it really confirmed what I thought all along, which is that this gentleman [West] probably shouldn't even be back on the street. But yes ... Mr. Callaway was very helpful in this process," Dubose said.
Attempts to contact West on Friday at Troy's Paint, Body, Auto Salvage in Poulan were unsuccessful. A man who answered the phone at the shop, and identified himself as an employee named, Paul, said West was not available for comment, but he did take a message for West. No returned call was received.
Currently, West is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing Sept. 28, at 3 p.m., in Clayton County Magistrate Court.