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Posted at 02:51 PM ET, 04/05/2011

Felony charges dropped against three Virginia football players; two plead guilty to misdemeanors

UPDATED WITH DETAILS OF INCIDENT 4:53 P.M.

HARRISONBURG, VA. – Two Virginia football players pleaded guilty Tuesday in Harrisonburg/Rockingham General District Court to amended misdemeanor charges of assault and battery stemming from a fight that took place Jan. 30 near James Madison University.

Sophomore cornerback Devin Wallace and sophomore center Mike Price will serve one year of probation and eventually could have the charges dismissed, pending good behavior. Price also must pay restitution of up to $7,100 to one of the victims.

All charges levied against redshirt sophomore linebacker Ausar Walcott, who also was involved in the fight, were dropped.  

The three Virginia players were suspended indefinitely from the team Feb. 8, and Coach Mike London said in a statement Tuesday that their status remains unchanged.

“I don’t have any comment regarding the court’s actions [Tuesday] because there is still a process these individuals need to complete with the University,” London said. “They remain suspended.” 

A school spokeswoman said Tuesday that the university had nothing to add to London’s statement at this time.

Price, Walcott and Wallace each initially were charged with one felony count of burglary-entering a dwelling with the intent to commit an assault, but all felony charges were dropped prior to Tuesday’s trial because of insufficient evidence.

The three players also initially were charged with three misdemeanor counts of assault and battery by mob. During the middle of Tuesday’s trial, the prosecution abruptly changed course and requested that the misdemeanor charges be amended.

When individuals are tried together – in this case, the “by mob” association – statements that any of them made in a criminal trial regarding the incident that would be to the detriment of another defendant cannot be introduced into court. If those same individuals were tried separately, then any of their statements could be used in a criminal trial to the detriment of another defendant.

“It was a problem that we saw going in, and we were prepared for it,” said Aaron L. Cook, the attorney who represented Wallace. “And I’m not sure they were prepared for it. But we saw that going in, and we were planning to use that.”

When asked if it would have been better strategy on the part of the prosecution to try Price, Walcott and Wallace separately, Cook responded, “That’d be one way to solve that problem.”

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Clark Ritchie, who led the prosecution, said he did not want to lose all of the charges, which led him to consult with the victims’ family and request the charges be amended.

“I’m comfortable with this because we’ve got a victim that’s going to be made whole, which was of paramount concern to this young man,” Ritchie said. “We have an acknowledgement of culpability, which means that in this tangled mass of witnesses and stories that is seen through a crowd, a really quick expanse of time and a lot of alcohol, we were able to get them to admit to culpability. And the victims supported this, and I want to be very clear about that. The victims who were in court supported this.”

Through the course of a trial that lasted three hours, details of the night in question were clarified. 

A large group of people had gathered at a party at a third-floor apartment near the James Madison campus. On the apartment’s back balcony, five to 10 people, many of whom had been drinking heavily, initiated a snowball fight with people on the balcony of an adjacent apartment.

At some point, contentious words were exchanged and matters escalated. Price, Wallace and Walcott were in a courtyard area down below the balconies of the two apartments. They became involved in the verbal confrontation. According to Cook, bottles and cups were thrown at the Virginia players.

On Tuesday, Patrick Seymour, 21, a JMU student, testified that he shouted a racial epithet several times during the course of the verbal confrontation, but denied directing it at anyone. He specifically denied directing the racial epithet at Wallace and Walcott, both of whom are black. Seymour said he didn’t think that the word would make anyone feel bad because he had not directed it at anyone specifically. 

It was after Seymour shouted the racial epithet that Price, Wallace and Walcott entered the apartment building and ascended to the third floor, where the party was being held. They entered the apartment, demanding to know who had used the word, believing that it had, indeed, been directed at Wallace and Walcott. A physical confrontation ensued in the apartment.

“We could appreciate that there was anger on the part of these young men based on what you heard from” Seymour, said Ritchie, who noted that he will assess Seymour’s testimony to determine whether charges should be brought against him. “That was something that puts a whole new spin on this. I understand why they were angry, and the Commonwealth does not condone the actions, at all, of the individual that admitted saying those things to them.  

“But the two people that ended up getting hit at this big party, there’s no evidence that they said this.” 

Nathan Yowell, a 20-year-old JMU student, was at the party with his brother, Logan, who was 17 at the time. Both of them had been drinking at the party, as well as at Nathan’s residence several hours before arriving at the party. At the sight of the physical confrontation breaking out in the apartment, Nathan suggested to Logan that they leave.

As they reached the bottom of the staircase, Nathan noticed the three Virginia football players coming down the stairs behind them. He nudged Logan to one side of the hallway and initiated a verbal confrontation with the three Virginia players.

Nathan testified Tuesday that he told Price, Wallace and Walcott that they needed to leave because they were causing trouble and ruining everyone else’s good time. At that point, Price made a movement toward Nathan as Nathan threw an empty plastic cup against a cement wall, shattering it into pieces.

Price, who is listed as 6 feet 5 and 270 pounds, then struck Nathan, who said Tuesday he is 5-6 and 165 pounds, in the face. Nathan was knocked unconscious. Whether Nathan took a swing at Price, as the defense suggested, was never determined at the trial.

The restitution Price must pay Nathan Yowell stems from the medical bills that resulted from Yowell’s ensuing trip to Rockingham Memorial Hospital.

When asked how the outcome of Tuesday’s trial would affect Price’s standing at the University of Virginia, William Helsley, Price’s attorney, said: “I assume that he will be in good standing. He’s been convicted of nothing, and in all likelihood will be convicted of nothing. The outcome calls for the charge to be dismissed.”

Wallace’s assault and battery guilty plea stemmed from injuries he inflicted upon Logan Yowell. Wallace is listed as 5-11 and 205 pounds; Logan Yowell said Tuesday he stands 5-5 and weighs 160 pounds. 

Cook said Tuesday’s trial “worked out the way it should have,” noting that his client likely will end up having the charges brought against him dismissed.

Cook also said he saw no benefit in charges being brought against Seymour, who appears to have sparked the whole incident with racially charged language. 

“We charge way too many people,” Cook said. “It’s a bunch of drunk college students . . . that were out of control and needed to go home and get some sleep. That’s what needed to happen. Our courts do not need to get involved with every little fight. Now, if some stranger on the street is jumped or molested or mobbed or whatever, that’s what the criminal justice system is for. . . .

“So who was committing the bigger crime here? I think the guys throwing bottles and yelling the ‘n’ word at these guys were the biggest criminals.”

By  |  02:51 PM ET, 04/05/2011

 
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