A man who pleaded guilty to assaulting a black mentally disabled high school student with a coat hanger in an Idaho locker room walked out of court Friday with his sentence: no jail time.
The victim’s parents called the deal unfair and stormed out before the hearing ended, according to the Times-News — visibly shaken after John R.K. Howard’s attorneys claimed that their son had fabricated stories of chronic abuse and harassment.
“My thoughts continue to be with the victim and his family,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said in a statement about Howard’s punishment: community service and three years of probation after pleading guilty to felony injury to a child.
There seemed to be little hope of that in the desert town of Dietrich, Idaho — where about 300 residents have been torn apart by the case’s explicit accusations and national coverage.
The victim’s parents still have a $10 million lawsuit open against the school over the October 2015 attack and events leading up to it. Even the town’s mayor told the Guardian newspaper that Howard “got a slap on the wrist and that isn’t enough.”
The victim, who was raised in Dietrich since his adoption at age 4, and his siblings comprise almost all of Dietrich’s black population.
By age 17, he played football at Dietrich High School, where his father was a science teacher.
In a lawsuit, Tim and Shelly McDaniel would later call Howard the ringleader of their son’s tormentors — who they say photographed him naked at school, hurled racial slurs at him and made him recite song lyrics that celebrate black lynchings.
“It liks [sic] to pound you to the ground, and lock the door for your opportunities, and leave you helpless, without a sound,” the teen later wrote in a poem about his high school experience, according to the Guardian.
And yet he considered his teammates his friends, he would testify. Even after, as a criminal complaint alleges, one student offered him a hug in the locker room, a second shoved a wire hanger into his rectum, and Howard kicked it in.
Howard, 18 at the time of the attack, faced a sentence of up to life in prison when he and his co-accused were charged with sexual assault in the spring.
Because the two others were younger than 18 at the time, their cases are sealed. But by December, Howard and the state struck a deal: The sex charges were dropped. He pleaded guilty to injury to a child, with the possibility that his conviction might one day be erased after he served probation.
Prosecutors could have proved that Howard kicked the hanger into the victim, a deputy attorney general said at the time — but doing so wasn’t a sex crime.
The deal outraged the victim’s family, their attorney, R. Keith Roark, told The Washington Post at the time.
“It’s absolutely preposterous that this kid should walk away with apparently no punishment whatsoever,” Roark said.
A petition to remove Randy Stoker, the district judge presiding over Howard’s case, garnered more than 150,000 signatures.
But in Stoker’s courtroom on Friday, Howard’s attorneys argued that the disabled teenager was a liar, coached by his parents.
Howard had kicked at the victim in the locker room, his defense argued, according to the Times-News. But only after the teenager walked up to him with the hanger already inserted in his backside.
The defense played an audio recording of the teenager made by two coaches in May — shortly after his parents filed their lawsuit against the school district.
“I was fed lies and I said it and I signed it because I was pressured,” the student told his coaches in the records, according to the paper. “It’s always been about the $10 million.”
But the teenager later recanted his confession in a deposition, the Times-News reported. “I just started telling a bunch of lies because I wanted my friends back,” he said.
And he went on to detail other accounts of abuse: His schoolmates ripped his pants off on a team bus, he alleged, and his coaches called him “grape soda.”
At Friday’s hearing, the judge dismissed a complaint that the victim was nicknamed “fried chicken” at school, citing a witness who said it was the teenager’s favorite food.
Stoker railed against “people from the east coast [who] have no idea what this case is about,” according to the Guardian.
“This is not a rape case,” he said.
“If I thought you have committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary,” the judge told Howard, and sentenced him to probation.
The victim’s parents and family have left the Idaho town since the 2015 attack, the Guardian reported. The victim now lives in an assisted-living facility after trying to commit suicide multiple times, according to the paper.
Joe Heim, Rob Kuznia and Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.