DIETRICH — A Dietrich high school football player originally charged with sexually assaulting a black, mentally disabled teammate after an October 2015 football practice pleaded guilty to a lesser felony Friday, and prosecutors now say it wasn’t a sex crime or racially motivated.
John R.K Howard, 19, of Keller, Tex., pleaded guilty Friday in a Twin Falls courtroom to a felony count of injury to a child. He will be sentenced to two to three years of probation, which he’ll likely be able to complete in Texas, and prosecutors will recommend he be ordered to serve 300 hours of community service.
But Howard will avoid prison or jail time and could ultimately have his conviction dismissed if he successfully completes probation without violations or committing new crimes. And by submitting an Alford plea, he maintains his innocence while acknowledging prosecutors would likely be able to win a conviction at trial.
District Judge Randy Stoker agreed to bind himself to the plea bargain, which includes a withheld judgement, meaning at sentencing, Stoker will order Howard be placed on probation but will not order an underlying prison sentence. A judge will order a prison term only if Howard violates his probation.
The maximum penalty a judge could order should Howard violate his probation is 10 years in prison and a fine up to $50,000. He had faced up to life in prison on the previous felony charge of forcible sexual penetration by a foreign object.
Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmer gave a detailed explanation Friday of the evidence prosecutors would have used to convince a jury Howard was guilty, and in a plea advisory form, Howard wrote there was “sufficient evidence for jury to convict me.”
But Hemmer also told Stoker that while Howard’s behavior was “egregious” and caused the victim “a lot of suffering,” it was not a sex crime, and that’s why the attorney general’s office amended the charge to the lesser felony. Court reports said a clothes hanger had been kicked into the victim’s rectum.
“We don’t believe it’s appropriate for Mr. Howard to suffer the consequences of a sex offender,” Hemmer said. “But he still needs to be held accountable.”
Howard’s attorney, Brad Calbo, agreed with Hemmer’s recounting of the state’s evidence but said “it needs to be crystal clear … that this victim was not at any time pinned down, raped, or pinned down and subjected to any sort of forcible penetration.”
Hemmer agreed, saying the evidence didn’t support those claims.
Stoker also asked Hemmer whether prosecutors planned to argue the attack was racially motivated.
“Your honor, based on what we’ve had, no,” Hemmer responded. “I will say that there are things that we found going around that school and that locker room involving a lot of the parties here that had racial undertones. But it’s not our belief that this was a racially motivated crime. This was more of a vulnerable-victim motivated crime. I think it probably would have happened to anybody that was in the same kind of circumstances and mental state as the victim here.”
Despite the court proceedings, a $10 million civil lawsuit filed by the victim is still making its way through U.S. District Court. It claims the locker room attack was the culmination of months of “severe and pervasive harassment, racial discrimination, mental and physical assault and battery.” It claims the district, school administrators and football coaches were aware of or should have been aware of the abuse.
The civil suit does not name Howard as a defendant but did single him out “as a large and aggressive male who had been sent to live with his relatives in Idaho due to his inability to keep out of trouble in Texas.” The civil suit claims Howard “brought with him from Texas a culture of racial hatred toward” the victim, and that his bullying was ignored by administrators and coaches “at least in part due to his athletic ability and community connections.”
The civil suit accuses Howard of humping and taunting the victim during football practices, forcing him to learn a Ku Klux Klan song while displaying a Confederate flag, knocking him unconscious during football camp as coaches and players cheered in a circle, and calling him racially charged names like “Kool-Aid, chicken-eater, watermelon and (N-word).”
Those claims, brought in the civil suit, were not addressed in the criminal case, which was solely centered on the locker room attack. But as part of the plea agreement in the criminal case, Howard agreed to complete any classes recommended by his probation officer, “including a race-based sensitivity class and anti-bullying class, if they are available.”
During his explanation of the evidence, the deputy attorney general confirmed, without mentioning his name specifically, that 17-year-old Tanner Ward has pleaded guilty in a juvenile case. Ward was originally charged as an adult with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, but as part of plea negotiations, his charge was amended and moved to juvenile court.
“There was stuff going on in the locker room, there wasn’t really any supervision in there at the time,” Hemmer said of the hanger attack. “The other party in this case that has pled guilty in juvenile court took a coat hanger and either inserted or swung or in some way caused it to become lodged in the victim’s buttocks … It’s the state’s contention that at some point, Mr. Howard purposely kicked that hanger.”
Hemmer said Howard and his defense team maintain it was accidental, that “he was just kicking at the victim.”
“But in any case, Mr. Howard made contact with that hanger,” Hemmer told Stoker. “It pushed it far enough into the victim that it penetrated the rectum.”
The attack caused the victim to bleed but did not cause permanent damage, Hemmer said. The victim has also “undergone a lot of mental stress,” proving two elements of the charge — that Howard inflicted “unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering … under circumstances likely to produce great bodily harm.”
Stoker imposed a gag order in the case, warning Howard and lawyers from both sides not to speak to the media at least until the sentence is imposed.
“We know what the result is going to be,” Stoker said in reference to the binding plea agreement. “There is nothing served by trying this case in the press.”
Howard waived his appeal rights as part of the plea agreement, but he could also have his conviction dismissed in the future.
“Upon successful completion of probation, including no proven or admitted probation violations or new crimes, the State will stipulate that the Defendant’s conviction be reduced to a misdemeanor,” the plea agreement said. “Defendant will be free to argue that the guilty plea be set aside and the conviction be dismissed.”
Sentencing is set for Feb. 24.