DIETRICH, Idaho -- A white former football player at Dietrich High School who admitted to kicking a coat hanger into the rectum of his black, disabled teammate will avoid prison, thanks to a plea agreement between his defense attorney and the Idaho Attorney General's Office.
John R.K. Howard, 19, pleaded guilty Friday to felony injury to a child. The charge was amended from felony penetration with a foreign object, which would have required him to register as a sex offender.
Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer said in court that he did not believe the assault constituted a sex crime.
"It was egregious behavior. It caused this victim a lot of suffering," he said. "But it is not, in our view, a sex crime, which is why the state has amended this charge. We don't believe it is appropriate for Mr. Howard to suffer the consequences of a sex offender, but he still needs to be held accountable, and that's how we've arrived at where we're at today."
As part of the plea agreement, Judge Randy Stoker agreed not to send Howard to prison for the attack. Instead, he will receive a withheld judgment, probation and possibly community service.
E. Lee Schlender, one of two attorneys representing the victim's family in a civil suit against the school district, told KTVB Tuesday the AG's office went forward with the plea deal against the wishes of the victim's parents.
"[The parents] advised us they did not agree to any particular plea agreement, and in fact voiced objection, but they were told 'this is the best we can do, and we're going to do it,'" he said, adding that the couple was "terribly disturbed and outraged" about the deal.
The victim, an 18-year-old with mental disabilities, suffered a breakdown not long after the sexual assault and has been "institutionalized" in various mental hospitals since, Schlender said.
His family has moved out of Dietrich.
Hemmer said the attack happened in the Dietrich High School locker room after a football game.
"There wasn't really any supervision in there at the time," Hemmer said.
One boy - previously identified as 17-year-old Tanner Ward - "took a coat hanger and either inserted, or swung, or in some way caused it to become lodged between the victim's buttocks."
Hemmer said Howard then intentionally kicked the coat hanger, forcing it into the teen's rectum.
He noted that the defendant and his attorney maintained the kick was accidental. The defense attorney also told the judge he wanted to make it "crystal clear" that the "victim was not at any time pinned down, raped or pinned down and subjected to any sort of forcible penetration."
"That's correct, there is no evidence that he was held down and had an object forcibly inserted into him," Hemmer replied.
According to the family's civil suit, the victim had been subjected to repeated physical bullying and racial taunts by Howard and other students, including being called "watermelon," "chicken-eater," and the N-word. The lawsuit also alleges Howard put a Confederate flag on the victim's computer, and forced him to recite a racist song called "Notorious KKK."
But Hemmer maintained the locker-room assault had not been motivated by race.
"We found a lot of things going around that school and the locker room involving a lot of the parties here that have racial undertones, but it's not our belief this was a racially-motivated crime," he said. "This was more a vulnerable victim motivated crime. I think it would have happened to anyone in the same kind of circumstance and mental state as the victim."
Schlender said he found the statements that the sexual assault didn't have anything to do with race "rather astounding."
"If you think about it, we don't have that many black students in this state, and certainly not that many at Dietrich High School, and this is a very singular, heinous crime that had a lot of history to it," he said.
But Schlender was adamant the Dietrich attack was not a reflection of sweeping racial prejudice in Idaho or in the state's justice system.
"I'm raised in Idaho, I went to Idaho high schools and colleges, and I think I know this state pretty well. I went to Raft River High School, which is very similar to Dietrich - south of Burley - so I'm familiar I think with the state's culture and background," he said "A racial attack or a vicious thing like this does not reflect what the citizens of our state believe, or what our culture is. It's absolutely abhorrent and contrary to the traditions and culture of our state."
Howard's sentencing is set for Feb. 24. Ward and another student accused of participating in the attack have been charged in juvenile court.
Stoker issued a gag order preventing both the prosecution and the defense from speaking to the media about the case, saying he "saw nothing serving by trying this case in the press."
Under Idaho's withheld judgment statute, the felony conviction may be scrubbed from Howard's record if he successfully completes probation.