A former University of Mississippi student could face up to a year in prison after pleading guilty Thursday to placing a noose on the school's statue of its first black student.
Austin Reed Edenfield waived indictment and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge before U.S. District Judge Michael Mills in Oxford. The charge says Edenfield helped others to intimidate African-American students and employees at the university.
Mills will sentence Edenfield July 21, and he faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Prosecutors have recommended probation for Edenfield, who cooperated in the early prosecution of another former student, Graeme Phillip Harris. However, Mills warned Edenfield he might not stick to that agreement.
"The court remains free to impose whatever sentence it deems appropriate," Mills said.
A 21-year-old resident of Kennesaw, Georgia, Edenfield remains free pending sentencing. He declined comment after the hearing.
Edenfield admitted that he tied the noose that ended up around the neck of the Ole Miss statue of James Meredith in February 2014. He, Harris and a third person also draped a former Georgia state flag with a Confederate battle emblem on the statue of Meredith, who integrated Ole Miss in 1962 amid rioting that was suppressed by federal troops.
Prosecutors said Harris hatched the plan to place the noose and flag on the statue after a night of drinking with Edenfield and a third freshman in the Sigma Phil Epsilon fraternity house on campus. They said Harris frequently expressed ill will toward black people and that during that night, he told Edenfield that the act would cause a sensation, saying "It's James Meredith, people will go crazy."
After the noose and flag were placed on the statue on the night of Feb. 15, 2014, Edenfield and Harris returned at sunrise on Feb. 16 to observe and were filmed by a video camera at the Ole Miss student union. During that trip Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Coleman said Harris raised his fist and shouted "white power" toward a white university employee.
"The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that our universities and our workplaces are free from threats of racial violence," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gupta said in a statement. "We will hold accountable those who attempt to turn places of learning into places of intimidation and fear."
An Alpharetta, Georgia, resident, Harris pleaded guilty in June to a misdemeanor charge of threatening force to intimidate African-American students and employees at the university after prosecutors agreed to drop a stiffer felony charge in exchange. His lawyer argued Harris didn't deserve prison, saying he'd written a letter of apology to Meredith after falling under the influence of racist traditions at the fraternity.
Harris was sentenced to six months in prison, followed by 12 months' supervised release. Federal Bureau of Prisons records show he's currently held at a minimum-security federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, and is scheduled to be released July 1.
Both Harris and Edenfield are white.
The third man has not been charged. University spokesman Jonathan Scott said Ole Miss officials expect no more prosecutions in the case.
"The responsibility taken in today's hearing is another step in the right direction," Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs, said in a statement. "Many members of our campus were deeply affected by this incident and the university does not tolerate hateful behavior. Today's outcome affirms our position and sends a clear message about what is expected in our shared community."
All three of the students withdrew from Ole Miss, and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity closed its chapter. The university continues to struggle with reminders of its racially tortured past, though. Earlier this year, Ole Miss officials stopped flying the Mississippi state flag, which also features the Confederate battle emblem. In recent weeks, Ole Miss has said it's preparing an additional plaque to provide historical context to a Confederate military monument on campus, but the university's NAACP chapter has said that move doesn't go far enough.
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