A white Idaho high school football player who was charged with sexually assaulting a black, mentally disabled teammate in October 2015, pleaded guilty Friday to a lesser felony charge, and the sex crime charges have been dropped.
John R.K. Howard, 19, of Keller, Tex., pleaded guilty to a felony count of injury to a child and will be sentenced to two to three years of probation and up to 300 hours of community service, according to the Twin Falls Times-News. A judge will decide the final sentence in February.
The Alford plea Howard submitted allows him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors probably would have won a conviction against him if the case had gone to trial.
In May, the Idaho attorney general’s office filed sexual assault charges against Howard and two of his teammates at Dietrich High School, alleging that they held the victim down, shoved a coat hanger into his rectum and then kicked the hanger several times. The two other students have been charged in juvenile court.
The plea agreement was met with “bitter disappointment and outrage” from the victim’s family, their attorney, R. Keith Roark, said in an interview Monday afternoon.
“It’s absolutely preposterous that this kid should walk away with apparently no punishment whatsoever,” Roark said. “Everyone is more concerned with these young sociopaths than the victim of their violence.”
Roark said he has protested the decision to the state attorney general’s office and demanded an explanation.
Prosecutors declined to comment when reached Monday, citing a gag order that the judge issued Friday, and defense attorneys representing Howard did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Details of the assault became known when the victim’s family filed a lawsuit against the high school. The lawsuit, which is seeking $10 million in damages, pointed to a long history of racist abuse and bullying against the student. The student “was taunted and called racist names by other members of the team which names included ‘Kool-Aid’ ‘chicken eater’ ‘watermelon’ ” and the n-word, the suit said. The victim and his adopted siblings are the only black people in Dietrich, a rural town of 330 in southern Idaho.
Deputy State Attorney General Casey Hemmer said in court that prosecutors would have been able to prove that Howard kicked the coat hanger into the victim’s rectum, according to the Times-News. But Hemmer said the violent assault did not constitute a sex crime, and that is why they allowed Howard to opt for the plea deal.
“Based on continuing investigation throughout this case — interviewing of witnesses, speaking with the victim and getting a better picture of what happened in this case — the state believes this is the appropriate charge,” Hemmer said in court, the Times-News reported. “It was egregious behavior, it caused this victim a lot of suffering, but it is not, in my view, a sex crime, which is why the state has amended this charge. We don’t believe it’s appropriate for Mr. Howard to suffer the consequences of a sex offender, but he still needs to be held accountable.”