texasmonthly.com: How did you first get wind of this story?
Pamela Colloff: Last spring, I was working on an article in Bloomburg, which is about twenty miles from Linden, in Cass County. I saw a headline in the local paper about the defendants in this case getting no jail time. I was vaguely familiar with the case from some AP stories that I had read, but I was intrigued when I saw that two juries had decided that these defendants should not spend any time in jail. I had already talked to my editor about this case, but when I saw those verdicts, I knew that it was a story.
texasmonthly.com: Whom did you speak to about this story?
PC: I began by trying to contact the defendants and their lawyers, none of whom would speak to me. None of their relatives or friends would either. So I went to Linden and talked to as many people as I could, including Billy Ray’s family. Some white people I spoke to did not want to be named in the story, but I still learned a great deal from talking to them.
texasmonthly.com: Was it mostly malice or negligence that led to Billy Ray’s beating?
PC: I’d prefer to let the reader come to his or her own conclusions about why this crime happened. But I do think that this is a case that can’t be boiled down just to race.
texasmonthly.com: What about the outcomes of the trials?
PC: Personally, I agree with Lue Wilson that it is hard to believe that the verdicts would have been the same if the victim had been white and the perpetrators had been black.
texasmonthly.com: What if the anonymous caller had never spurred the Linden police to further investigate what happened to Billy Ray?
PC: I think that’s a really good question, and one we’ll never know the answer to. It’s possible, if everyone had kept quiet, that these guys would never have been prosecuted, since Billy Ray has no memory of what happened to him.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think racism in rural Texas is more or less prevalent than the average urban Texan would guess?
PC: I think it’s easy for Texans who live in urban areas to believe that racism is more prevalent in the Piney Woods than it is where they live. It was certainly true that white people were much more comfortable using the n-word with me in interviews on this story—and on other stories I’ve worked on in East Texas—than they usually are when I am reporting in Houston or Dallas. But I don’t think that racism is relegated to just one geographical area. It manifests itself in different (and more subtle) ways in urban areas as well, so I would hate for people to think that racism only exists in the Piney Woods.
texasmonthly.com: What is the best possible outcome at this point?
PC: I think any doctor would tell you that Billy Ray could benefit from some physical therapy and speech therapy, so I hope that he is able to get more access to that in the future, whether it is through Medicaid or a legal settlement. As for what the outcome of the civil trial should be, again, I would prefer to let the reader make up his or her own mind about that.