An Idaho judge has sentenced a high school football player to three years of probation and 300 hours of community service after prosecutors said he took part in a locker room sexual assault on a black, disabled football player in a small Idaho town.
District Court Judge Randy Stoker sentenced John R.K. Howard of Keller, Texas, on Friday. The Times-News reports that Stoker’s decision included granting a withheld judgment, which means the teen’s conviction could one day be dismissed.
Howard was originally charged with sexually assaulting his classmate with a coat hanger during the October 2015 incident at Dietrich High School. But in December, Howard pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child as part of a modified guilty plea — known as an Alford plea — in which he acknowledged he would be found guilty in a trial but maintained his innocence.
Howard, who is white, is the only accused assailant whose criminal case was handled in adult court. Two others faced charges in closed juvenile court; one of them has pleaded guilty.
The town’s mayor, Donald Heiken, said he was unsatisfied with the deal. “I think that he should be punished for his crime,” he told The Guardian in an email. “I feel that he got a slap on the wrist and that isn’t enough.”
The victim’s parents described Howard as “the ringleader of their son’s tormentors,” according to The Washington Post, and said their son was photographed naked at school by Howard, who used racial slurs against him.
Meanwhile, the victim’s family has sued the school district for $US10 million in damages, contending the assault was the culmination of months of racist taunts and physical abuse at the high school. The lawsuit is still pending.
However, on Friday, Howard’s attorney, Brad Calbo, argued that the case was not about racism nor was it about rape. “The racist stuff, it’s not there,” Calbo said. “They’re absurd allegations … this has all been blown out of proportion for the pursuit of money.”
Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer also said that a medical examination of the victim found no internal or external injuries, adding that the victim did say an assault occurred in the locker room.
The victim’s adoptive parents walked out of the hearing during Calbo’s presentation. They declined to comment, other than refer to the mother’s comments made earlier in the hearing, explaining to the judge that she “felt the plea was so unfair.”
Investigative documents created by the Idaho Attorney General’s office include several somewhat conflicting witness descriptions of the incident.
One of Calbo’s key arguments hinged on a recorded conversation between the victim and the football coaches, just days after they were named defendants in the civil lawsuit in 2016. In the recording, the victim recants his accusations and blamed his parents for pursing the lawsuit.
The investigative reports, however, show the recording was made when the victim was at a friend’s house, without his family members or attorney present. Shortly before the recording was made, several of the victim’s fellow students told him that “they were going to lose their farms if the civil suit kept going and the town would fall apart,” according to the documents.
During the recording, the voices of several of the other students and teammates can be heard telling the victim that they love him and that he needs to tell the truth.
In a Feb. 17 deposition with the school district’s lawyers, the victim took back what he said in the recording.
“All that stuff, I just made up,” he said of the recording. “I just started telling a bunch of just lies because I wanted my friends back.”
The deposition was part of the civil lawsuit, which is expected to go to trial this summer.
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