TWIN FALLS --The assault of a mentally-disabled black 18-year-old was not motivated by the student's race, a Twin Falls judge said Friday, despite evidence that his coaches and teammates called the teenager names including "fried chicken," "Kool-Aid" and "grape soda."
The comments came during the sentencing hearing for 19-year-old John R.K. Howard, who admitted to kicking a coathanger into the victim's rectum in the Dietrich High locker room after a football game. Howard received a withheld judgment, along with three years of probation and 300 hours of community service.
"If this was a sexual offense, if this was a racially-motivated offense, the good order of protection of society would say that you need the penitentiary," Judge Randy Stoker told Howard. "It's not that."
Stoker's decision drew criticism from across the country, both from people who wanted to see Howard sent to prison to those who noted the nicknames dismissed by the judge are rooted in common stereotypes for African-Americans.
Stoker said the names were because the victim enjoyed those foods, not because he is black.
"The coaches admitted [victim] was called fried chicken, grape soda and Kool-Aid, but only because he said he liked those things," he said. "The coaches said they bought [victim] grape soda one time for getting a big play on the football field because it was one of his favorite things, and that moniker... hung on. I don't think that's a racial slur."
RAW: Judge Stoker's comments during Howard's sentencing (Note: Victim's name has been digitally redacted)
Not everyone agrees.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch & NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, rejected Stoker's conclusion that prejudice played no role in the October 2015 attack.
"There's no way that anybody can look at this case and say that it had nothing to do with race," she said. "It had everything to do with race."
The regional NAACP office has called for an independent investigation into the case.
Both Howard's defense lawyer and the prosecutor for the attorney general's office say the assault has already been thoroughly investigated. They argue the public got a skewed idea of the facts in the case - in part, due to information released by civil attorneys for the victim's family that painted the coathanger assault as the end result of months of escalating racist taunts and bullying.
Defense attorney Brad Calbo said the victim and his teammates were joking around when one of the teens put a coathanger between the 18-year-old's buttocks. He told the judge Howard kicked the hanger on accident as he tried to push the other student away from him.
The defense also played recordings at the sentencing in which the victim tells his football coaches that he was pressured into the lawsuit by his parents.
But Williams said she did not believe the victim - who was moved into an assisted living facility after the assault - received justice. She called on Stoker to step down, pointing to other recent controversial rulings, including one earlier this month in which he ordered a 19-year-old convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl not to have sex with anyone unless he gets married.
"I think it's about time that judge retires," Williams said. "I don't know how long he's been on the bench, but it seems like he needs to have a reality check."
A Change.org petition calling for Stoker's removal from the bench is circulating on social media, and has gathered more than 150,000 signatures.
Stoker did not respond to a request for comment.
The civil case against the Dietrich School District is still moving forward, although a date has not been set for the trial.