An Idaho activism group is questioning the state’s decision to enter into a plea agreement that will allow a white football player to avoid jail time in the alleged sexual assault of a black teen with disabilities.
The Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, in a statement posted online, is urging Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to take immediate action against state Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer.
“Deputy Attorney General Hemmer’s actions and statements dehumanizes the young man who was heinously penetrated and fuels and sanctions our culture of sexism, racism, able-ism, domination, aggression, and violence,” it said.
“The young man who was brutally penetrated was viewed as less than our dominant culture ‘ideal’ of masculinity. This was a sex crime … The actions by the football players and Dietrich High School were racist,” it added.
Idaho’s Twin Falls Times-News reported John R.K. Howard, 19, entered an Alford plea Friday in a Twin Falls courtroom to a reduced charge of injury to a child. In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction.
A former Dietrich High School football player, Howard was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage victim, who was not identified, with a coat hanger while others participated or watched. The teen, according to court documents obtained by The Washington Post, has “mental disorders including learning disabilities.”
Howard will serve two to three years of probation as part of the agreement. He will not have to register as a sex offender and can have his conviction dismissed upon successful completion of the terms of his probation. A judge is expected to accept the agreement when he sentences Howard on Feb. 24.
During Friday’s court proceeding, Hemmer reportedly called Howard’s behavior “egregious” and acknowledged it caused the victim “a lot of suffering,” but said it did not amount to a sex crime.
“We don’t believe it’s appropriate for Mr. Howard to suffer the consequences of a sex offender,” Hemmer said in court.
According to court documents, the alleged assault took place inside a high school locker room on Oct. 23, 2015. A teen, under the pretense of giving the victim a hug, restrained him while another teen “physically forced a coat hanger into the plaintiff’s rectum,” the documents say.
Howard kicked the coat hanger several times while it was inside the boy’s rectum, the documents allege.
“I screamed,” the victim testified during an April preliminary hearing, according to the Times-News. “I was pretty upset. I felt really bad. A little bit betrayed and confused at the same time. It was terrible — a pain I’ve never felt.”
The assault caused injuries that required medical treatment, authorities said.
After a months-long investigation, the state attorney general’s office initially charged Howard and two underage teammates on the football team in March, with felony forcible penetration by use of a foreign object. The charge carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Because Howard’s co-defendants are charged in juvenile court, the disposition of their cases is not publicly available.
The victim’s family has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the school and 11 employees, including administrators and coaches who are accused of failing to stop the abuse.
The lawsuit alleges the victim was subjected to frequent racist abuse by Howard and other teammates — all of them white. The victim was “taunted and called racist names by other members of the team, which names included ‘Kool-Aid.’ ‘chicken eater,’ ‘watermelon,’ and ‘[n****r],’” the lawsuit alleges. It also claims Howard posted a confederate flag on the victim’s computer and made him recite a racist song titled “Moonman Notorious KKK,” which references lynching.
Howard, according to the lawsuit, was the leader of the abuse.
“Mr. Howard is 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 complaint says.
Coaches and administrators “ignored or were deliberately indifferent to the behavior of Mr. Howard, which included aggression, taunting and bullying of the plaintiff and other students in the district,” the lawsuit alleges. “With deliberate indifference, the defendants did nothing to curb the vicious acts of Mr. Howard who brought with him from Texas a culture of racial hatred towards the plaintiff.”
The lawsuit is still pending.
Hemmer in court Friday denied racism was a motive in the case.
“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,” Hemmer told the judge. “But it’s not our belief that this was a racially motivated crime. This was more of a vulnerable-victim-motivated crime.”
Howard’s attorney, Brad Calbo, also told the judge he wanted it made “crystal clear” in the court record that “this victim was not at any time pinned down, raped, or pinned down and subjected to any sort of forcible penetration,” The Idaho Statesman reported.
The Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence is asking for: “Nothing short of a complete retraction by the Attorney General of Hemmer’s outrageous actions and statements and immediate action against Hemmer.”
“This was more than a “vulnerable-victim” motivated crime ― it was hate and unimaginable sexual violence against a young black high school student with a disability,” it said. “This was able-ism.”
The state attorney general’s office said it is not allowed to comment on the case until after sentencing, per a gag order from the judge.