An Idaho judge has sentenced a white former high school football player to just 300 hours of community service with probation for his part in an attack on a developmentally disabled African American team-mate, insisting the case had been wrongly portrayed by the media as racially or sexually motivated.
In a series of extraordinary remarks, district judge Randy J Stoker on Friday accused the press and the public for misrepresenting what happened in a rural Idaho high school locker room on 22 October 2015, lamenting “people from the east coast have no idea what this case is about”.
John RK Howard, who is now 19, was originally charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object for an attack on a 17-year-old in the Dietrich High School locker room after football practice.
The victim’s family, who are bringing a civil case, allege he was subject to sustained racist abuse and bullying in the months leading up to the incident, which involved the insertion of a coat hanger in his rectum. However Stoker was insistent the case, which has prompted nearly 150,000 people to sign change.org petition to have the judge removed from the bench in Idaho, had been misconstrued.
“This is not a rape case,” said an emphatic Stoker. “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.”
“In my view, this is not a case about racial bias,” the judge continued, addressing the pale young man at the defense table. “If I thought that you had committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary.”
According to the civil lawsuit filed by the victim’s family, their son had been the focus of long-term racial bullying and abuse. Howard taught him a song that glorified anal rape and the KKK, and members of the football team called him slurs including “nigger”, “chicken eater”, “watermelon” and “Kool-Aid”.
But on Friday, Stoker brushed aside those assertions. The victim “was not targeted, which dispels in my view any claim of a racial incident”, Stoker 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.”
The case has prompted comparisons with the notorious Brock Turner case, in which the 20-year-old Stanford swimmer was convicted of multiple felonies for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Turner was sentenced to just six months in prison and served only three, a punishment that sparked a global firestorm from critics who argued it was overly-lenient.
Referring to news reports about the case that were printed and broadcast across the country, a frustrated Stoker fumed that “people 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.”
The victim, who was not in court during the Friday sentencing, described the attack during during the preliminary hearing for another of the football players involved. The young man said that one of his friends motioned for him to come over and hugged him while another player shoved a hanger into his anus. Then, the victim said, Howard kicked the hanger, which pushed it further into his rectum.
“Pain that I have never felt took over my body,” he said during the April hearing, according to the transcript obtained by the Guardian. “I screamed, but afterwards, I kept it to myself.”
Howard pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of felony injury to a child in a December agreement that limited his punishment and allowed him to avoid prison. Friday’s sentencing was in accordance with the plea agreement: in addition to 300 hours of community service, Howard will be on probation for three years. If he violates probation, he will be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Howard was the only adult of the three young men charged in the case. Charges against the minors involved in the incident were resolved in juvenile court, where state statute requires that all proceedings be closed to the public.
“I try to make my decisions doing what I think is appropriate justice,” Stoker added before sentencing John RK Howard. “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.”
After the judgment, E Lee Schlender, the victim’s attorney, said the “truth will come out” about a case which the school superintendent and attorney general’s investigators agreed was a “vicious rape”.
“Now at the sentencing of the adult who led the attack the defense attorneys proclaimed that it never happened. That the adoptive parents of not only the victim but 24 other children from around the world made all this up to get rich. They were not challenged by the attorney general’s attorneys who sat silent or at times, even agreed. A sad day in the history of my beloved state. This case is not over. The federal civil case is alive and well. The truth will come out.”
The sentence came at the end of a dramatic hearing that raised questions about who was telling the truth and just who was the victim in the notorious case that rocked the small, ranching town of Dietrich, Idaho, which has a population of around 330.
The afternoon hearing began with the victim’s tearful mother recounting how “the rape”, in her words, had ruined her adopted son’s life, leaving him sleepless and suicidal. Although Dietrich residents started out sympathetic, she said, the family eventually felt so harassed that they had to move.
“This is not the life we wanted for our son, and it is not the life he was going to have,” the mother said. “Our lives have all been changed so dramatically because of what happened.”
She recounted chasing after her distraught son as he held a large shard of glass against his neck. She said the family dog was poisoned and they were so afraid they sold their home at a loss and left town. And she pleaded for Stoker to impose a harsher sentence than the one proscribed in the plea agreement.
Howard’s punishment, the victim’s mother said, “is a slap on the hand for him”, adding that for her son and her family it is “a slap in the face”. She talked about the humiliation and pain her family endured and asked Stoker “realize that John RK Howard will have only some discomfort … Please give John RK Howard the punishment he deserves.”
But Brad Calbo, Howard’s defense attorney, painted the victim’s parents as liars who were financially motivated, drawing attention to their $10m civil rights suit against the school district and its officials and suggesting they coerced their fragile son into committing perjury.
In an unexpected and bizarre twist, the defense attorney played a tape of the victim appearing to recant his earlier statements that was recorded by his football coaches.
“I don’t think you guys should have to lose your farms,” the victim told his football coaches in the discussion, which occurred following an argument with his parents. “It was never my intention. I was fed stuff, fed lies … I was pressured.”
The victim continued, after being questioned about his parents’ intent, that “it’s always been about the money, it’s always been about the $10m. I love you guys to death.”
The victim “was not raped”, said a vehement Calbo. “No one has ever been accused of raping [him] period with the notable exception of [his] mother. [He] never claimed he was raped. [He] was not pinned down while a hanger was forcibly inserted in his rectum.” In fact, Calbo said, Howard helped the victim with his homework and “John loves him today despite all of this nonsense”.
Schlender said that his client was coerced by the coaches into making such statements about his family. “The coaches knew he was mentally disabled and taking major anti-psychotic medication,” when they pressed the victim and recorded the conversation, according to a document filed in the civil case.
Part of the audio recording that Calbo did not mention in court Friday was the victim saying, according to the civil document, “I honestly don’t know who did the hanger thing. Who did the, who held me, I was, I don’t know. All I know is that it happened.”