TWIN FALLS -- The Idaho Judicial Council said Monday that a Twin Falls judge did not break any rules in his handling of a case related to the assault of a disabled student in the Dietrich High School locker room.
Fifth District Judge Randy Stoker was the target of widespread outrage after he handed down a sentence some said was far too lenient and ignored the role the victim's race played in the crime.
The case centered on an attack in the Dietrich High School locker room in October 2015, during which 18-year-old John R.K. Howard of Texas kicked a coathanger into the rectum of a mentally disabled black teenager.
Howard admitted to felony injury to a child as part of a plea deal that allowed him to avoid registering as a sex offender. Stoker sentenced him in February to three years of probation and 300 hours of community service.
The decision drew immediate backlash, with more than 175,000 people signing a petition for Stoker to be removed from the bench, the president of the regional NAACP office calling for him to step down, and three verified complaints filed with the Idaho Judicial Council.
The complaints, filed by six different people, alleged an erroneous decision and sentence, legal incompetence, appearance of impropriety and failure to disqualify.
The disciplinary panel concluded Monday after a review of the complaints that all three were unfounded.
One of the complaints charged that Stoker gave Howard a light sentence because the judge was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. That's not true, the panel said.
"Judge Stoker is not now nor ever was a member of the LDS Church," the Idaho Judicial Council wrote in a release.
The panel likewise rejected the complaint that the sentence or decision was erroneous, noting that Stoker had "meticulously reviewed criteria" during the sentencing, and sentenced Howard within the statuatory guidelines for felony injury to a child, which does not carry a mandatory minimum.
Stoker also asked the prosecutor whether the victim's family had agreed to the plea deal, and was told that they had been informed about the plea agreement and were "fine with it.”
The victim's mother later contested that, telling Stoker at Howard's sentencing the light punishment was a "slap in the face" and that the legal system had failed her son.
Neither the defense nor the prosecution appealed the sentence.
The final complaint - legal incompetence - was also dismissed.
"It is apparent from the record the prosecution interviewed any eye witness to this incident as well as many other citizens or school officials about the case," the panel wrote. "The defense counsel filed many requests for discovery and was given all legal discovery. Judge Stoker knew all the pertinent facts from the court file and answers given from the defendant, his attorney, and the prosecution during court hearings."
The council also pointed to Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer's assertions to Stoker that the hanger attack was not racially motivated.
Civil attorneys for the victim's family - who filed a $10 million lawsuit against the school district - disagreed, describing physical bullying and racial taunting in the months leading up to the attack, including being called "watermelon," "chicken-eater" and the N-word. Students also drew pictures depicting the victim sitting in the back of a bus, draped a Confederate flag over his computer, and forced to sing an extremely vulgar song about lynching black people, according to the civil suit.
But Stoker said at sentencing he did not believe the nicknames were racist.
"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."
If he believed the assault had been racially motivated, Stoker said, he would have sent Howard to prison instead of placing him on probation.
The Idaho Judicial Council closed its investigation without discipline.
An Associated Press report found earlier this month that that is not unusual for the independent panel: despite getting about 80 yearly complaints against judges, the Idaho Judicial Council rarely determines that a complaint warrants punishment for the judge.
Out of 83 complaints in 2016, one judge was admonished privately and another was given a private written reprimand.
A motion hearing in the civil case against the Dietrich School District is set for July 27.
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