The “pranks” began shortly after Donald Williams Jr. started his freshman year at San Jose State University.
Alongside other first-years, the 18-year-old was assigned a dormitory suite with seven other students, including a high school friend with whom he shared a bedroom. But collegial relationships soon dissolved into a series of hijinks targeting Williams, the only African American roommate.
In early September 2013, he was standing in his hallway when one of his roommates came up behind him and placed a U-shaped bike lock around his neck. Williams struggled to be released, but the lock remained clamped shut until his roommate gave him the key five minutes later.
A week later, three of his roommates again attempted to secure him inside the lock. Williams resisted and a scuffle ensued, ending with Williams walking out.
The bike lock was never to be used again, but other dubious ploys took its place: hanging a Confederate flag in the common room, displaying a racial slur on a dry-erase board, penning a sarcastic letter quoting the “Beloved Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.”
On other occasions, the claustrophobic Williams was locked inside his room and closet. In time, he said he gained the nicknames “three-fifths” and “fraction” — a reference to how the Constitution once counted black slaves when apportioning representation in Congress by the states.
These events, pieced together through police statements in an independent fact-finding report commissioned by the university, are at the crux of a high-profile bullying case that found three of the white students involved guilty of a misdemeanor against their roommate — but not of a hate crime — on Monday.
— #NBC7 San Diego (@nbcsandiego) February 23, 2016
Colin Warren, Logan Beaschler and Joseph “Brett” Bomgardner were found guilty of misdemeanor battery after “offensively touching” Williams during the bike-lock prank, the San Jose Mercury News reported.
But the jury acquitted Bomgardner, 21, of misdemeanor commission of a hate crime by use of force and was deadlocked on hate crime charges against Warren and Beaschler, both 20, the Mercury News also reported.
They had all pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The decision — by a jury of 6 men and 6 women, none of whom was African American — marks the beginning of the end for a case that prompted an investigation within San Jose State, an apology from the school president and the formation of a task force for combating racial discrimination on campus.
Since news of the harassment broke in 2013, the task force has made more than 50 recommendations and provided diversity training to dorm residents. The four students involved, including one charged as a juvenile, were expelled from the university.
“Much work lies ahead as we seek to create a truly inclusive, welcoming and safe environment for every member of our community,” Sue Martin, San Jose State’s interim president, told the Associated Press in a statement.
But for those frustrated by the lack of hate crime convictions, the work on Williams’s case itself is far from done. Among these voices is former California Superior Court judge LaDoris Cordell, who heads the task force.
“I am saddened that 12 jurors could not agree that calling a black male ‘Three-fifths’ or ‘Fraction,’ or forcing a lock around his neck, or creating an environment promoting racism with Confederate memorabilia, or hearing how this young man was humiliated, amounted to a hate crime,” Cordell told the Mercury News. “This verdict demonstrates that we are a long way from living in a post-racist America.
The abuse was made public after Williams’s parents visited their son’s dorm, where they saw the Confederate flag and the “N-word” scrawled on a whiteboard.
The flag was intended to “ruffle some feathers,” Beaschler told police. After Williams objected to the display, he and a couple of other roommates addressed gave him a letter in cursive type.
“It has come to our attention that you have taken offense to some of our actions over the past month,” the letter began. “It is not our intention to beget hostilities between the members of our humble abode but rather welcome all with a sense of congenial pride.”
The letter went on to “extend our sincerest apology if our previous conduct did not make you feel welcome as a member of our communal domicile” and quoted “the Beloved Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr”: “‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools.’ As you may have noticed many of us in this suite have formed a paternal brotherhood and we would like to cordially invite you to join us as faith or fin.”
Yet the flag and whiteboard writing remained in the suite when Williams’s parents arrived days later.
Protests erupted on campus in response to the alleged incidents, with students expressing anger that the behavior had gone on for months without repercussions.
“By failing to recognize the meaning of a Confederate flag, intervene earlier to stop the abuse or impose sanctions as soon as the gravity of the behavior became clear, we failed [Williams],” then-University President Mohammad Qayoumi said. “I failed him.”
In court, the roommates’ lawyers argued that the students’ actions were but a “prank war” gone awry, resulting in actions that were “immature, insensitive and stupid” but not criminal.
“Kids with too much time on their hands will do stupid things,” Beaschler’s attorney, Charles Mesior said, according to Reuters Reuters. He described his client as a “nerdy” engineering honor student.
Meanwhile, Colin Warren’s attorney, Dek Ketchum, said during his closing argument that Warren “isn’t racist” because he was “dating an African American woman and did not want the relationship to end.”
Prosecutors countered that the continued abuse constituted more than innocent gags.
“Prejudice is not a prank,” Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen told reporters Monday. “This violence did not happen in a historical vacuum. This violent act was done to a young black college student by five white men, an injustice inflicted upon him because of the color of his skin.”
A juror in his 30s who spoke to the Mercury News after the decision said he went in thinking the actions were a hate crime but concluded that it was Williams’s word against his roommates’.
Beaschler, Warren and Bomgardner will be sentenced in March. They face up to six months in jail, but the absence of hate crime convictions make it likely that punishment will be limited to community service.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office will consider asking for a retrial on the hate crime charges, according to NBC Bay Area.
At San Jose State, where just 3 percent of the student body is African American, a black political science major expressed dismay at the deadlocked jury.
Gary Daniels told the Mercury News: “Who knows who these guys are going to terrorize in the future?”
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