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No Jail Time For 19-Year-Old In Idaho Coat-Hanger Assault Case

John R.K. Howard listens during his sentencing hearing Friday at the courthouse in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Drew Nash, Times-News / www.magicvalley.com
John R.K. Howard listens during his sentencing hearing Friday at the courthouse in Twin Falls, Idaho.

A 19-year-old white man accused of kicking a coat hanger up the rectum of a mentally disabled black teammate received no jail time at his sentencing on Friday.

Former high school football player John R. K. Howard entered a so-called "Alford plea," meaning he maintains his innocence while admitting a judge or jury would likely find him guilty. He was sentenced to probation and community service, and his conviction might be entirely dismissed at a later date.

The Twin Falls Times-News writes that supporters of the black player see the sentencing as "a slap on the wrist for a privileged white teen who preyed on a disabled teammate from the only black family in town."

Howard, who pleaded guilty to felony injury of a child, had originally been charged with sexual assault. But prosecutors later decided that, while they were confident they could prove Howard kicked the coat hanger into his teammate's rectum, the act did not constitute a sex crime. District Judge Randy Stoker agreed, and approved the plea deal for a lesser charge in December.

On Friday, as he issued the final sentencing, he also discounted testimony of racist remarks toward the black player and concluded that the assault was not racially motivated.

Two other members of the football team were also charged in connection with the attack. The Idaho Statesman reports that the outcomes of their cases are sealed in juvenile court.

In addition to the criminal cases at the state level, the mentally disabled young man's parents are also pursuing a federal civil case, which is still ongoing. "The truth will come out," the family's attorney in that case said, according to The Guardian.

The case has been explosive in the tiny town of Dietrich, Idaho, a community of about 330 people. Last May, The Washington Post described a town "torn apart" when Tim and Shelly McDaniel accused three football players of a monthslong campaign of racist bullying of their adopted son, culminating in the assault.

The couple says they reported the bullying but the school did nothing — Howard was a football star with "ties to a prominent Dietrich family," the Postwrote, and Shelly McDaniel said she was "just shunned" when she went to administrators for help. Then, after the assault, the couple took legal action.

The Guardian has more on the specific allegation of assault, which began with an invitation for a hug:

"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.' "

We should note that the mentally disabled young man has referred to his teammates as his "friends" throughout the case, even while testifying about racist comments and physical abuse.

Howard's defense attorney didn't deny that this incident occurred. Instead he argued that the football star kicked at his black teammate while the hanger was between his buttocks, but did not intentionally kick at the hanger itself, the Times-News reports. The attorney also argued that Howard may not have known the hanger, which was inserted by another player, was there.

The victim has also testified that Howard repeatedly called him the n-word and taught him a KKK-glorifying song that called for the lynching of black people, and that other members of the football team called him "fried chicken," "watermelon," "Kool-Aid" and "grape soda," the Times-News reports. (Stoker said during sentencing that "nobody" thinks those are racial slurs, despite the fact that the terms have a long history of being used as racist insults, as Alex Riggins of the Times-News explained.)

But the most unexpected and hotly contested part of the sentencing hearing on Friday was a May 2016 audio tape of the mentally disabled young man saying his parents pressured him into testifying, for the sake of the $10 million civil suit, and that he lied under oath when he made his allegations.

The McDaniels left the courtroom in fury after they were accused of fabricating the assault for financial gain, The Times-News reports.

"I don't think you guys should have to lose your farms," he told the coaches on the recording from last May, according to The Guardian. "It was never my intention. I was fed stuff, fed lies."

"I love those guys," the young man says of his alleged assailants, The Times-News reports. "Those guys shouldn't be charged.

The defense argued that the tape showed the black player recanting his allegations. But the young man has since retracted his comments on that tape, the Times-News reports:

"The [May 2016] conversation was recorded by football coaches Mike Torgerson and Rick Astle just six days after they were named as defendants in the civil lawsuit. Several of the victim's friends and teammates were also present. Voices on the recording are repeatedly heard telling the victim how much they love him, and how he needs to tell the truth. ...

"But just last week, in a deposition taken Feb. 17, the victim takes back what he said in the recording and explains that he lied to his football coaches and friends. He told them what they wanted to hear because he wanted his friends back, he said.

" 'All that stuff, I just made up,' he said of the recording. 'I just started telling a bunch of just lies because I wanted my friends back.' "

The Guardianalso notes that elsewhere on the tape, in a section not mentioned in court on Friday but disclosed in a civil case document, the mentally disabled player reiterates that the coat hanger assault happened. "I honestly don't know who did the hanger thing," he tells his coaches. "All I know is that it happened."

Stoker, as he sentenced Howard to community service and probation, was emphatic that the assault did not constitute a rape, the British newspaper reports.

"Whatever happened in that locker room was not sexual," he said. "In my view, this is not a case about racial bias," he also said.

"People from the east coast have no idea what this case is about," he said, according to the Guardian. "But I'm not going to impose a sentence that is not supported by the law."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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