OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — A federal prosecutor said in court Thursday that Graeme Phillip Harris hatched a plan, after a night of drinking at a University of Mississippi fraternity house, to hang a noose on a campus statue of James Meredith, the first black student at Ole Miss.
Harris, who is white, pleaded guilty Thursday to a misdemeanor charge of threatening force to intimidate African-American students and employees at the university. Prosecutors agreed to drop a stiffer felony charge in exchange for the plea arising from the incident last year.
The 20-year-old Harris faces up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $100,000. U.S. District Judge Michael Mills said sentencing will be within 60 to 90 days, and he allowed Harris to remain free on a $10,000 bond.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Norman told Mills that Harris, who had a history of using racist language and saying African Americans were inferior to whites, proposed the plan to two fellow freshmen while at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house on the night of Feb 15, 2014.
That led to the plan to hang the noose and a former Georgia state flag that features the Confederate battle flag on the statue of Meredith, in a jab at Ole Miss' thorny racial history.
When a federal court ordered the university to admit Meredith in 1962, the African-American student had to be escorted onto campus by armed federal agents. The agents were attacked during an all-night riot that claimed two lives and was ultimately quelled by federal troops.
After the noose and flag were placed on the statue, Norman said Harris and one of the other freshmen returned at sunrise on Feb. 16 to observe and were filmed by a video camera at the Ole Miss student union.
Norman said Harris won't be prosecuted for the second charge in his March indictment — conspiracy to violate civil rights — a felony which could carry up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
"Our African American U.S. attorney met with the defendant and decided that, despite the severity of the crime, that he is a salvageable young man that she is willing to give a second chance," Norman said, referring to Felicia Adams, the U.S. attorney for northern Mississippi.
"Attempts to categorize the defendant's offensive conduct as a mere college prank only serve as a hollow denial of our collective history and a repudiation of the legacy of those who fought to obtain and preserve our historic civil rights," Adams said in a statement.
Her statement added: "No one should have to endure threats or intimidation at our nation's universities because of their race or the color of their skin."
After Thursday's hearing, Norman said the investigation is ongoing. All three of the students withdrew from Ole Miss and Sigma Phi Epsilon closed its chapter. Harris, of Alpharetta, Georgia, told Mills Thursday that he is now enrolled in college in that state. The two other former students haven't been charged.
David Hill, a lawyer for Harris, said his client met with Adams and others Wednesday to finalize the plea agreement. "He's wanted to accept the responsibility for any hurt, any offense, any harm he's caused anybody because of what he did," Hill said.
Ole Miss officials have said that they turned the case over to federal prosecutors and deferred to their judgment.
"It is our hope that by bringing closure to this investigation we can begin the healing process for all those affected by the behavior that took place the morning of Feb. 16, 2014," Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs, said in a statement. "This further affirms that conduct of this nature will not be tcolerated on our campus."
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