Indictment issued in restaurant beating case

Photo by Daniel Lenz

Photo by Daniel Lenz

By Linda Looney-Bond


In a dramatic courtroom development -- like something that might have been ripped from the script of the popular TV drama, "Law and Order" -- it was revealed that a Poulan, Ga., man was indicted on felony charges Wednesday in the Sept. 9, reported beating of a woman at the Morrow Cracker Barrel restaurant. He was jailed, immediately.

The revelation of Troy Dale West's indictment came while West sat in a jam-packed courtroom, during what was to be a hearing to convince a Magistrate Court judge that the misdemeanor charges against him, in connection with the beating, should be upgraded to felonies, and he should be re-arrested.

Chief Magistrate Court Judge Daphne Walker announced at the beginning of the 8 a.m., hearing, that she had been informed that the victim of the reported beating, Army Reservist Tashawnea Hill, 35, of Jonesboro, was -- at that moment- testifying before a grand jury in the case.

At approximately 8:55 a.m., as Walker considered motions in the case, District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson entered the courtroom, with Hill, and stated: "Your honor, I have a true bill of indictment."

Before the surprised courtroom audience, filled with representatives of civil rights groups and Hill supporters, Walker received the indictment from Lawson and read the charges aloud.

A grand jury had just indicted West, 47, on felony charges of aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and cruelty to children, as well as on misdemeanor counts of battery and disorderly conduct.

Walker then informed West that no bond had been set, and he would, therefore, be remanded into the custody of the Sheriff's Office. West was taken into custody and booked into the Clayton County Jail. The judge bound the case over to Superior Court.

Hill then asked that Judge Walker dismiss Hill's application for the arrest warrant, which was the reason for the hearing. Walker complied.

As Hill, her attorney, and community leaders exited the courtroom, they were met with the applause of more than a hundred supporters, who had not been able to enter the crowded courtroom.

"Tasha Hill is grateful to the members of the Clayton County grand jury for indicting Troy West on several felony counts, as a result of the unprovoked attack on her at Cracker Barrel," said Hill's attorney, Kip Jones. "This is the beginning of the process for prosecuting him ..."

The crowd of community leaders and supporters paused for a brief meeting on the courthouse steps. Members of the NAACP, SCLC, Rainbow Push Coalition, National Action Network, and United Youth Adult Conference were among those present.

"Let's make sure that we watch this case closely," activist and former Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman said, addressing the crowd.. "We understand an indictment is not a conviction. We're going to watch this case until justice rolls down like water. Don't you ever let anybody tell you that your presence doesn't make a difference," Boazman said.

West's attorney, Larry King, could not be reached for comment.

District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said West would likely be arraigned next month, with a trail calendar date in November. Lawson said Clayton County Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter denied bond for West following the indictment, however, she said West can file a motion for a bond hearing.

Wednesday was the second time West has been arrested in the case that has drawn national attention, and has focused a heated spotlight on Clayton County and its criminal justice system. West stands accused of punching, beating, and kicking, Tashawnea Hill -- and yelling, vile, racial slurs at her -- in the presence of Hill's 7-year-old daughter. Hill is African American, and West is Caucasian.

According to a Morrow Police Department police report from the day of the incident, West allegedly attacked Hill after she said to him that he had almost hit her daughter with the restaurant door as Hill was entering the establishment, and West was leaving.

West was arrested at the scene, and later released on bond from the Clayton County Jail. He was facing misdemeanor charges at that time, but there was mounting pressure from civil rights groups and the community to upgrade the charges. Wednesday's dramatic development seemd to satisfy, at least temporarily, those who believed weightier charges should have been filed from the beginning.

In a related development, Cracker Barrel's home office, located in Lebanon, Tenn., issued a statement on its web site in response to the indictment.

"Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc., is pleased that the Clayton County Grand Jury has returned indictments against the man accused of assaulting a woman who was entering one of its Georgia stores on September 9, 2009," the statement read. "Cracker Barrel is encouraged to know that its cooperation with authorities helped secure these indictments because Cracker Barrel wants to see justice served."

The restaurant chain recently issued a statement saying that West had been banned for life from visiting Cracker Barrel restaurants.

The Federal Bureau of investigation is reviewing the case to see whether federal hate-crime charges should be brought, according to a spokesman for the agency.

Bill Nigut, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League Southeast Region, attended Wednesday's hearing. He said his organization is watching the case closely. "Georgia is one of only five states that does not have a hate-crimes law,' he said.

"To sit in that courtroom today, and look at Ms. Hill - calm, dignified, quiet - have to hear, once again, those horrible, horrible things that the defendant screamed at her, was extraordinarily sad," Nigut said. "And we cannot allow crimes based on bigotry to go without special attention."

He said his organization plans to lobby state lawmakers when the session begins in January.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, who has championed hate-crimes laws, also commented on the case, recently. "It's just all the more reason that, one, we need this man [West] prosecuted to the fullest extent of state law, and then, federal law," he said. "But, at the same time, it's just proof positive that we need a strong hate-crimes law in this state.

"I authored a hate-crimes law in 1999. It passed in 2000. And then in 2003 or 2004, it got overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court on a technical issue," he said.

Fort said the law gave people, who were convicted of hate crimes, more time in jail and increased fines. "We're going to keep fighting for it, and educating the public about why we need a hate-crimes law," he said.