BOISE -- Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said Friday that investigators and prosecutors from his office correctly handled the case of a black, mentally disabled teenager who was assaulted with a coat hanger in the locker room of the Dietrich High School.
Wasden's comments came after a firestorm of criticism that has descended on his office in the wake of a plea deal the AG's office offered 19-year-old John R.K. Howard for his role in the attack.
Howard, who kicked a coat hanger into the rectum of the victim, was sentenced last week to three years of probation and 300 hours of community service after pleading guilty to felony injury to a child. The charge was reduced from forcible penetration with a foreign object, which would have required him to register as a sex offender.
Critics charge that the light sentence demonstrates an entrenched willingness on the part of the justice system to allow white small-town football players to escape consequences in a violent, racially-motivated sexual attack.
That's not true, Wasden said.
"We believe we have fulfilled our responsibility to seek justice," he said of the case.
INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM
Both Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer - who prosecuted the case - and Howard's defense lawyer have blamed information released in a $10 million civil suit filed by the victim's parents against the school district for muddying the waters of public perception in what actually happened inside the Dietrich High locker room Oct. 22, 2015.
Tony Pittz, the investigator assigned to the case, agreed to take KTVB through the timeline of events that evening.
The incident began as the 17-year-old victim and his teammates were getting ready for football practice, Pittz said.
"One of the players put his arm around or hugged or in some way held our victim in place when another teammate came up and gave him a wedgie," he said. "The wedgie was sufficient enough to tear his underwear free from the band in the back. They chased each other around the locker room, and eventually got ready and went to practice."
After practice, the victim and other players returned to the locker room. At some point while the students were changing, one of the players, identified as Tanner Ward, picked up a black plastic coat hanger and stuck the rounded elbow end - not the hook - between the victim's buttocks, according to Pittz.
"Our suspect, John R.K. Howard is sitting on a bench waiting to go home, when he looks up and the hanger and the buttocks are in front of his face," the investigator said. "His statement, as well as witness statements, are that he makes a kicking motion towards our victim."
Witness accounts of how many times Howard kicked at the teen vary, but at least one of the kicks hit the hanger, pushing it into the victim's rectum, Pittz said.
"Our victim yells, screams out in pain, and the hanger is removed and tossed across the locker room on the floor towards the sinks," he said.
The investigator said students reported using flashlight apps on their phones to examine the victim, and some of them may have seen blood. When the coaches comes into the locker room, all the players "clam up," and the victim and other students go home without telling them what happened, Pittz said.
Pittz said the victim told a sibling about being assaulted with the hanger, who in turn told the victim's mother the next day. She told the school about what happened and took the victim to the hospital, where CAT scans and other examinations found no "internal or external injury of any kind," Pittz said.
The incident was reported to the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office that afternoon, Pittz said, and passed on to the Idaho Attorney General's Office the next week.
THE PARAMETERS OF LAW
In another state, it might have been a rape.
But Idaho Code limits its rape statute to penetration of an orifice with a penis - and only a penis - effectively eliminating it as a possible charge the attorney general's office could leverage against Howard.
Wasden said his lawyers on the case originally thought the sex crime initially filed against Howard - forcible penetration with a foreign object - would fit the bill.
That didn't stick either.
The problem, Wasden said, again lay with the language of the statute. Idaho Code describes the crime as "for the purpose of sexual arousal, gratification or abuse" - something he interprets specifically as sexual arousal, sexual gratification or sexual abuse.
In order to secure a conviction, then, prosecutors would have to prove that the defendant was acting out of a sexual desire when he kicked toward the other teenager. Wasden says evidence to back that up just wasn't there.
"We don't get to play 'what if,' we are stuck with the facts as the witnesses describe them," he said. "We have to stay within the confines of the statute as it's written. We don't get to wander beyond that."
The attorney general demurred when asked if he believed the statutes should be broadened to encompass acts like what happened in Dietrich, saying the Idaho Legislature would have to make that decision.
Prosecutors also looked at, but ultimately eliminated, the possibility of charging Howard with aggravated battery or malicious harassment, commonly referred to as Idaho's hate crime statute. Aggravated battery requires use of a deadly weapon or infliction of "great bodily harm, permanent disability or permanent disfigurement," neither of which fit the facts of the case, Wasden said.
And despite reports of players and coaches calling the victim racially-themed names including "Kool-Aid," "fried chicken" and "grape soda," Wasden said, the AG's office had doubts about whether they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Howard was motivated by the victim's black skin.
That left battery - a misdemeanor - and felony injury to a child.
Wasden made his choice.
'AN INCREDIBLY VULNERABLE YOUNG MAN'
The attorney general said he saw his office's role in the investigation as twofold: To hold the perpetrator accountable for what he had done, and to protect the victim.
"This is an incredibly vulnerable young man who has mental and physical challenges, and he was subjected to tremendous abuse," Wasden said.
Prosecutors had to keep that in mind when deciding whether to offer a plea agreement or to push the case forward to a trial that may have ended in a stricter sentence - but could have also re-traumatized the victim, Wasden said.
"This victim did not want to testify, his parents did not want him to testify, and in fact it was not in his best interest to testify," he said. "So when you have a case like this and his testimony was critical to our case, if we're going to accommodate his best interests and not re-victimize him by putting him on the stand, then we have to do something else. What was that something else? That something else was, we were able to negotiate a plea deal of guilty to a felony crime by the perpetrator of this crime."
Another issue in the case was the surfacing of recorded conversations between the victim and his football coaches in which the teenager tells the older men he was pressured into the civil lawsuit by his parents.
The civil attorneys allege it was the coaches that pressured the victim by telling him they would lose their farms if he did not drop the suit. One of the lawyers, E. Lee Schlender, said the conversation amounts to witness intimidation.
Pittz said he conducted a follow-up investigation after learning of the taped conversation and concluded the coaches' actions weren't illegal.
"Our investigation showed that it was actually the victim reaching out to other members of his team, friends at school saying ' I want to go talk to the coaches about this,'" he said.
Wasden said he did not believe the victim's conflicting statements in that recording would have been an insurmountable problem at trial, but "certainly has an impact" on the case.
In addition, a trial in lieu of a plea deal could have had another outcome for Howard: He could have been acquitted altogether.
Despite the criticism, Wasden maintains his office made the right choice, even if it did not end with Howard behind bars.
"Whether he received a sufficient sentence or not is up for debate, but the answer is, based on this evidence, that's what we were able to achieve," he said.
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