Thursday, March 22, 2007

No Contest Plea Avoids Jail for Hazers

3 Florida A&M University Frat brothers avoid prison sentence for hazing

Three fraternity brothers accused in a case that tested Florida's law against hazing avoided prison by pleading no contest Monday to a lesser charge in the beating of a prospective member. Each received probation, including 30 days in a sheriff's work camp, after entering the pleas to misdemeanor hazing. Prosecutors offered the plea deal only after two mistrials on felony hazing charges.

Five Florida A&M University fraternity brothers were tried together. The second jury convicted two, and each was sentenced to two years in prison. They are appealing.

Circuit Judge Kathleen Dekker accepted the plea agreement but warned Brian Bowman, 23, of Oakland, Calif.; Cory Gray, 23, of Montgomery, Ala., and Marcus Hughes, 21, of Fort Lauderdale, they still could get almost a year in jail if they violate probation."This is your chance to stay out of jail, and I hope I sincerely hope you do not blow it," Dekker said. "You need to be perfect citizens."

A no-contest plea means the defendant does not admit or deny the charges, but agrees to a punishment as if guilty.The five Kappa Alpha Psi brothers were the first people charged with violating a new state law that makes it a felony, with a five-year maximum, to commit hazing that results in serious bodily injury. The victim, Marcus Jones, 20, of Decatur, Ga., was struck on the bottom with wooden canes and in the head with fists and boxing gloves during unauthorized initiation rites last year.

A doctor operated on his buttocks to help heal a large bruise. Jones also suffered a broken ear drum.

He was not present but his father, Army Master Sgt. Mark Jones, was in the courtroom Monday."Whatever the court wants, whatever the court says," the elder Jones said afterward.

The two defendants convicted in December, Michael Morton, 23, of Fort Lauderdale, and Jason Harris, 25, of Jacksonville, are being held in the county jail pending rulings by Dekker on motions for a new trial.

Defense lawyer Chuck Hobbs, who represented all defendants except Harris, called the plea deal "bittersweet." Most important for the three defendants is that they no longer face felony convictions and will have clean records if they complete probation, he said."

As they mature and grow, it'll be just a speed bump," Hobbs said, "as opposed to something that will have a detrimental impact on their future."