A white Idaho high school football player who was originally charged with brutally raping a black, mentally disabled teammate with a coat hanger was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser felony Friday, with prosecutors now claiming that the attack was neither a sex crime nor racially motivated, the Times-News reports.
John R.K. Howard, 19, originally of Keller, Texas, pleaded guilty Friday in a Twin Falls, Idaho, courtroom to injury to a child. According to the news site, Howard will likely be sentenced to two to three years of probation, which he may be able to complete in Texas. Prosecutors will reportedly recommend that Howard serve 300 hours of community service.
Still, the 19-year-old will completely avoid prison or jail time for his part in the brutal October 2015 attack of a black, mentally disabled teammate after a football practice at Dietrich High School. According to the Times-News, he may even ultimately be able to have his conviction dismissed if he completes his probation without any issues and without committing any more crimes.
According to the Times-News, as part of the deal, Howard submitted an Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors would most likely have won a conviction if the case had gone to trial. A judge will only order prison time if Howard violates his probation. The maximum punishment that could be meted out in such a case would be 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer acknowledged during the hearing that Howard's actions were "egregious" and caused the victim "a lot of suffering," but then went on to say that it was not a sex crime and that that was why the attorney general's office reduced charges.
“We don’t believe it’s appropriate for Mr. Howard to suffer the consequences of a sex offender,” Hemmer said. “But he still needs to be held accountable.”
Hemmer agreed with Howard's attorneys' claim that the "victim was not at any time pinned down, raped or pinned down and subjected to any sort of forcible penetration," citing evidence.
When asked by the judge whether prosecutors intended to argue that the attack was racially motivated, Hemmer said no.
“Your honor, based on what we’ve had, no,” he said. “I will say that there are things that we found going around that school and that locker room involving a lot of the parties here that had racial undertones. But it’s not our belief that this was a racially motivated crime. This was more of a vulnerable-victim-motivated crime. I think it probably would have happened to anybody that was in the same kind of circumstances and mental state as the victim here.”
As the Times-News notes, despite the court rulings, a $10 million civil lawsuit filed by the victim is being processed through U.S. District Court. The lawsuit charges that the attack on the victim was a culmination of months of "severe and pervasive harassment, racial discrimination, mental and physical assault and battery," of which the district, school administrators and football coaches were all aware or should have been aware.
Howard is not a defendant in the lawsuit, but the document did describe him as "as a large and aggressive male who had been sent to live with his relatives in Idaho due to his inability to keep out of trouble in Texas." The suit accused him of bringing "with him from Texas a culture of racial hatred toward" the victim, adding that his bullying was ignored by administration and coaches "at least in part due to his athletic ability and community connections."
As previously reported by The Root, the suit claims that Howard humped the victim while taunting him during football practices. The 19-year-old allegedly forced the victim to learn a Ku Klux Klan song and knocked him unconscious during football camp while other teammates and coaches cheered and called the victim racist names such as "Kool-Aid, chicken-eater, watermelon and [n—ger]."
Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 24.
Read more at the Times-News.