It was the type of vicious, hate-filled crime that isn’t expected to happen in an affluent, well-educated place like Ventura County.
A young black man who went to a Ventura house party with three friends was brutally beaten by a crowd of men--some white, some Latino--who pelted him with open beer bottles and hurled racial epithets in a riot-like episode.
The victim, 26-year-old James Wilson, crawled to safety, only to face a painful recovery and uphill court battle as witnesses declined to come forward to name his attackers.
“It is almost unbelievable,” Municipal Court Judge Roland Purnell said Wednesday during a sentencing hearing for a former member of a white supremacist gang ultimately fingered in the assault. “It almost defies belief that something like this could happen.”
Then, concluding an emotional two-hour hearing, Purnell sentenced 23-year-old Jefferson Byrd to 10 years in state prison for his role in the May 10, 1996, attack.
Deputy Public Defender Zane Smith had urged the judge to set aside Byrd’s felony assault conviction and allow a new trial based on fresh evidence, including the favorable results of a recent lie detector test.
“Sometimes a person is convicted who should not be convicted, and I think that has happened in this case,” Smith argued.
Smith called four witnesses--all black--who told the judge that Byrd was not a racist, but a friend who comes over to their houses for dinner and to play with their kids.
And Byrd appealed directly to the judge, apologizing for fighting with Wilson at the party, but continuing to deny that he smashed a 40-ounce beer bottle over Wilson’s head, slicing off part of his left ear.
“I’d just like to say that I am sorry for my participation in what happened that night,” Byrd said. “I am not a racist and I do not dislike the man because he is black.”
But Purnell was not swayed. He denied the request for a new trial and refused to reduce the felony assault charge.
As the sentence was handed down, Byrd sat motionless at the defense table. He cast a long gaze at his 22-year-old wife, Brandee, as he was led out of court.
She sobbed and cradled their tiny 2-week old baby, who slept soundly as his father was escorted by two deputies to a holding cell. Under state law, Byrd must serve at least 80% of his sentence, or eight years, before he is eligible for parole.
On the eve of the sentencing, Byrd’s wife tried to remain upbeat--hopeful that the judge would see their side of the story.
“I know he didn’t do this--not a question in my mind,” she said Tuesday. “I am not giving up on him.”
Although a group of individuals was reportedly involved in the attack, authorities were able to identify and arrest only two men: Michael Morales and Byrd.
After a 10-day trial in April, Byrd was convicted of felony assault. The jury also found that the attack was racially motivated and caused great bodily injury to Wilson--allegations that stiffened his sentence under state anti-hate laws.
Morales, in contrast, was convicted only of a lesser misdemeanor offense for his role in what a probation officer described as a “bottle-throwing melee.”
Last month, he was ordered to serve 30 days in jail and placed on probation. At the time, Deputy Dist. Atty. Robin McGrew had pushed for a longer sentence for Morales.
On Wednesday, McGrew again asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence for Byrd--to send a strong message that hate crimes are not acceptable in this community.
“He can hold whatever beliefs he wants, but we don’t tolerate those kinds of actions,” she said of Byrd’s former affiliation with a white supremacist gang.
“I understand that he is only 23 years old and that he has a young wife and family,” she continued. "[But] it is too little too late, and he needs to pay for his actions.”
After the sentencing, Wilson and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Selby, said they were relieved that the case was over and that Byrd received the stiffest sentence possible.
But they still fear reprisal from Byrd’s friends and are eager to move away, taking their 9-month-old daughter to another state.
“I want to go somewhere where I don’t have to watch my back,” Wilson said. “Ever since this happened, we’re hermits.”
During the sentencing hearing, Wilson and Selby each made brief statements to the judge, describing their ordeal. The memories of that night, they said, will haunt them forever.
“I am mad,” Wilson told the judge, his voice low and gravelly. “Someday my daughter is going to ask me why I can’t hear her and it is because part of my ear is missing.”