District Judge Randy Stoker sentenced John R.K. Howard to three years of probation and 300 hours of community service at the Twin Falls County District Court in Idaho on Feb. 24.
Many people are outraged by what they believe was a light sentence for the 19-year-old white former high school football player who pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child, a mentally disabled black teammate, notes the Idaho Statesman.
Two other young men were charged as juveniles in the incident, which revolved around the insertion of a coat hanger inside the 17-year-old victim's rectum. The crime took place inside a locker room at Dietrich High School on Oct. 22, 2015.
During the sentencing, Stoker attacked those living outside the state: "[P]eople from the east coast have no idea what this case is about. They’re not going to change their mind ... But I’m not going to impose a sentence that is not supported by the law," reports The Guardian.
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Howard was initially charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, but Stoker insisted the case was not about sexual assault:
This is not a rape case. This is not a sex case. This started out as penetration with a foreign object ... Whatever happened in that locker room was not sexual. It wasn’t appropriate. There’s nothing in this record that supports anything close to the sexual allegation against this young man.
Howard was accused of kicking the hanger, which was already in the victim's rectum, so that the hanger would go in further.
"Pain that I have never felt took over my body," the victim recalled during a hearing in April 2016. "I screamed, but afterwards, I kept it to myself."
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The victim is from the only black family in town, reports the Idaho Statesman.
However, Stoker insisted race did not play a factor: "In my view, this is not a case about racial bias. If I thought that [Howard] had committed this offense for racial purposes, [Howard] would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary," reports The Guardian.
Almost 150,000 people have signed a Change.org petition to have Stoker removed from the bench.
Stoker also said: "Another individual who was involved said [the victim] was called 'fried chicken' because [he] said it was his favorite food ... I don’t think it’s a racial slur."
According to the Idaho Statesman, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden called the non-jail sentence an "an appropriate conclusion to a difficult case."
Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer said in December 2016 that Howard "caused this victim a lot of suffering, but it is not, in my view, a sex crime."
Howard entered an Alford plea, which means he is technically maintaining his innocence, but admitting that he could have been convicted. That conviction could be dismissed someday because Stoker granted a withheld judgment to the defense.
The case became more complicated when the victim was recorded on tape telling some school football coaches that the incident was fabricated for the victim's parents who have filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Dietrich School District; the lawsuit says the coaches and district administrators ignored months of racially-based harassment and abuse that led to the coat hanger incident.
However, during a deposition for the civil lawsuit on Feb. 17, the victim recanted his confession:
All that stuff, I just made up. I just started telling a bunch of just lies because I wanted my friends back ... My friends were super important to me at the time ... I felt like I needed to have them, like they were going to be with me forever.
Lee Schlender, the victim's lawyer, skewered the coaches for recording the victim:
Can you imagine setting a meeting with a mentally disabled child? And you take him and tell him, "We’re going to lose our farm, we’re all going to jail, you’ve got to do something for us." And recording it? … It’s despicable … I can’t think of a much sicker situation.
Brad Calbo, one of Howard's lawyers, told the court on Feb. 24 that Howard was a "respectful, God-fearing, polite young man" who has been wrongly accused and attacked by the media.
Tim and Shelly McDaniel, the victim's parents, walked out of the courtroom while Calbo spoke.
According to Calbo, his client was sitting on a bench after football practice when the victim backed up towards him with the coat hanger sticking out of his buttocks. Howard insisted that he kicked at the victim, but not intentionally at the hanger which he may not have known was there.
Stoker said that Howard could receive up to 10 years in jail for violating his probation, and defended the sentence, notes The Guardian:
I try to make my decisions doing what I think is appropriate justice. That’s what I’m going to do in this case. For all the people who sent the letters, told me I should die, you wasted your time ... I’m hoping that this sentencing today will bring to an end the misrepresentations that have occurred in this case.
Schlender said the "truth will come out," and that the school superintendent and investigators for the attorney general agreed the incident was a "vicious rape."