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|Defendants in Piedmont Park gay bashing plead guilty|
|by Dyana Bagby|
|October 25, 2011 16:40|
Three of the men accused of robbing and violently beating openly gay pastor Josh Noblitt and his friend in Piedmont Park more than a year ago expressed remorse on Tuesday in Fulton Superior Court as they pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
Jarvis Johnson, 21; Sam Johnson, 19; and Benjamin Johnson, 17, admitted their guilt in the attack on Noblitt and his friend, Trent Williams, on July 2, 2010, as the two were enjoying an evening picnic. The three were part of a group of six young men — the youngest was 13 at the time of the crime — arrested in the attack. According to police reports and Noblitt, three of the suspects walked up to them and asked, “Are y’all gay? Two men laying on a blanket. We ought to beat y’all for that.”
The three youths walked off and returned later with a stick and got into a fight with Noblitt and Williams. During the fight, Noblitt called police from his cell phone. At the same time one of the three youths called for reinforcements. Several more teens showed up on the scene and one pulled a gun on Noblitt, held it to his head, and demanded their money.
The attack was deemed an anti-gay hate crime by the Atlanta Police Department at the time. The defendants on Tuesday pleaded guilty to charges of robbery and Sam Johnson pleaded guilty to additional charges of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a robbery. The men faced one to 20 years in prison. Fulton Assistant District Attorney Fasha Lewis recommended 10 years for each.
Sentences handed down by Judge Alford Dempsey:
• Benjamin Johnson, who has been out on bond and under house arrest after serving a couple months in youth detention, was sentenced to five years but instead of serving time in prison, he will be under intensive probation.
• Sam Johnson, Benjamin's older brother, who has been in jail since the day of the attack, was sentenced to five years to serve 15 months with time served and was to be released later Tuesday.
• Jarvis Johnson, a cousin of the two other men, has also been in jail since July 2, 2010. He was sentenced to seven years to serve two years with time served, leaving nine months to serve.
Jarvis Johnson at first testified in court he had nothing to do with the attack, saying he was on his way to the park after being called by his friends to show up, and was only pleading guilty because it was in his best interest. However, after several minutes, he broke down in tears and admitted participating and Alford said that led him to give him a lighter sentence.
Before Alford handed down the sentences, Noblitt addressed the defendants in open court.
“I am a gay man. I am also a pastor, a brother, an uncle. I want you to know that,” he told them as they stood before the judge.
“I also would like to know more about your stories. My heart breaks for your families and you all. I harbor no ill will. In a weird way, I care about you all.”
After the hearing, Noblitt said he hoped the young men would examine their feelings toward gay people.
“I'm hoping that by being confronted by someone who is gay and shows mercy, maybe that will be enough — we've got to work to change one heart at a time,” Noblitt said.
Caprice Johnson, mother of Sam and Benjamin Johnson, was in tears during the court hearing. She was grateful for the judge's sentences as well as Noblitt's mercy and hugged Noblitt tight outside the courtroom. She said she would be happy to have Noblitt visit her home and talk to her sons and said she raised them not to hate anyone.
“We don't have a problem with homosexuality. We are all one in God's eyes. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ,” she said.
Noblitt said he had concerns about his attackers going to prison, especially because of their age.
“Time will tell and my hope and prayers are that they will be productive,” he said.
Cases are still pending against three other defendants — Daequan Lewis, age 15 at the time of the crime; Jamal Bryant, 13 at time of crime; and Tyrone Smith, 16 at time of crime. All are charged as adults.
Top photo: Josh Noblitt (second from left) with one his attackers, Benjamin Johnson (far right), and Johnson’s parents, Caprise and Sam Johnson. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)
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