14:15, March 10 345 0 abajournal.com

2017-03-10 14:15:08
Investigation opened against Idaho judge from high school football sexual assault case

A southern Idaho judge, who presided over a high-profile, racially charged criminal case against white high school football players accused of sexually assaulting a black mentally disabled student, is being investigated by the Idaho Judicial Council.

A Change.org petition that calls for Judge Randy Stoker to be removed from bench has received more than 170,000 signatures, the Twin Falls Times-News reports. It was started by Monica Ryan, an Idaho teacher, who told the newspaper that she had sent her complaint to the IJC.

The football players and some coaches from the Dietrich School District reportedly called the disabled student “fried chicken, grape soda and Kool-Aid,” according to an earlier article, and there had been a history of bullying the victim. Defendant John R.K. Howard, who was 18 at the time of the incident, admitted to kicking a hanger that was lodged inside the victim’s buttocks. He entered an Alford plea to felony injury to a child.

Stoker, who in court stated that the case was not about racial bias, sentenced Howard to three years of probation and 300 hours of community service. Under terms of the plea agreement the judgment was withheld, and the conviction could eventually be dismissed.

“Another thing that happened is [the victim] made some kind of football play, and he happened to be a fan of liking grape drinks,” Stoker said at Howard’s sentencing hearing. “So guess what? The pseudonym or whatever got hung on him. The players and even the coaches called him ‘grape drink’ or ‘grape something.’ Well, I guess if you folks think that is a racial slur, under the circumstances … my perception of that is much different than yours. I don’t think it is. Nobody thinks it is.”

All verified complaints against judges undergo an initial review, Tony Cantrill, the IJC’s executive director, told the Twin Falls Times-News, and the findings are shared with the council. If the council finds that a judge violated an ethics rule, a more in-depth investigation takes place. If the investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing, the information is sent to the Idaho Supreme Court, which can censure, discipline or remove judges.

Roger Burdick, chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, told the Idaho Statesman last week that the council has the authority to publicly or privately reprimand a judge for misconduct, but it does not second-guess judicial decisions.

“I can personally say that a lot of people are unhappy with a legal decision and, as a result, they turn to the council,” Burdick said. “The council cannot reverse a case because a judge made a decision within a reasonable realm of law and fact. The council has no power in that regard. That’s what the appellate courts are for.”

Stoker also attracted national attention in February, when he sentenced a defendant who pleaded guilty to statutory rape. Cody Duane Scott Herrera, 19, told presentence investigators he’d had 34 sexual partners, and Stoker sentenced him to five to 15 years in prison, suspended on the condition that Herrera be celibate until he gets married.

The Dietrich assault victim has filed a civil lawsuit against the school district, which seeks $10 million in damages. Meanwhile, Ben Hardcastle, the district’s superintendent and a defendant in the lawsuit, announced Thursday that he is resigning.

The school had known for years about bullying, racism and violence, particularly in the locker room, said Lee Schlender, an attorney for the victim. Hardcastle joined the school in 2014, a year before the assault in question took place.

“I think he’s being sacrificed,” Schlender said. “He was only there for less than a year before this happened, and there’s no evidence that the school board told him [when he was hired] that, to use a metaphor, the ship was on fire down below. There was a raging fire going on that was going to be a disaster.”