Students sentenced for cotton ball incident

They received two years’ unsupervised probation and community service.
Freshman Sean Fitzgerald and witness Joseph Windsor exit the Boone County Courthouse on Thursday after the sentencing for the cotton ball incident. Fitzerald and senior Zachary Tucker, who plead guilty to littering, were each sentenced to two year unsupervised probation and 80 hours community service.

Sean Fitzgerald, 19, and Zachary Tucker, 21, were sentenced to two years' unsupervised probation and 80 hours of community service Thursday for scattering cotton balls Feb. 26 on the lawn of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. They both pleaded guilty to a class A misdemeanor of littering.

Boone County assistant prosecuting attorney Ryan Haigh asked for 120 days in the Boone County Jail, two years of unsupervised probation and 40 hours of community service.

"If there is a repeat of any conduct similar to this, I won't set a cap of 120 days (in jail)," Judge Deborah Daniels said.

Fitzgerald and Tucker have withdrawn from MU and plan to return in the fall. The university is requiring them to complete 30 hours of community service and write a series of reflective papers, their attorneys said.

Both defendants expressed remorse for their actions.

"It left a black mark on the campus that I chose to attend, that I wanted to attend," Tucker said.

Junior Bryan Like, a frequent visitor at the BCC, testified at the sentencing.

"The action that was taken in placing the item, which has a very strong connection with my culture, with my ethnicity, in a place that I am located in often, was a slap in the face," Like said.

Fitzgerald and Tucker were charged with littering for placing the cotton balls on private property without the permission of the owner. But Haigh said the crime was more severe due to the psychological injury to the victims.

"This is not your classic littering case," Haigh said. "It's far different."

Fitzgerald's attorney Kevin O'Brien said the incident was a prank in bad taste. He said Fitzgerald had already endured significant punishment for his act, including embarrassment, media attention and a stain on his record.

"I'm not trying to minimize his conduct," O'Brien said. "But I'm trying to explain to the court that Mr. Fitzgerald is truly sorry for what he's done."

Fitzgerald's defense included a letter from assistant professor LaTrese Adkins, who said Fitzgerald had spoken to students in her black studies class and expressed genuine remorse.

Deputy Chancellor Michael Middleton said the incident was an embarrassment to the university and it made some students fear for their safety and question their welcome at MU.

"This incident was much more, in our view, than a childish prank," Middleton said.

Sophomore Whitney Williams said she had been shocked upon hearing about the incident.

"(The BCC) is my house," Williams said. "It was like somebody had disrespected my home."

Tucker's attorney, Christopher Slusher, said Tucker has already suffered for the incident, citing his withdrawal from school, apology to the BCC and the loss of his Navy ROTC scholarship.

"A tremendous amount of punishment has already taken place," Slusher said.

Middleton called the crime severe but said the sentence should offer the defendants opportunities to learn and grow into respectable citizens. He said the university organized town hall meetings and a mediation session to facilitate discussion of the incident.

Like said he had accepted Fitzgerald's apology at the mediation session but did not think it was sincere.

The conditions of Tucker and Fitzgerald's probations included surrendering their drivers' licenses for 60 days and submitting to chemical tests and substance abuse assessments. Daniels said she included these conditions because Fitzgerald was inebriated at the time of the incident, and Tucker, though sober, did not stop him.

"I believe you need to be responsible for your conduct," Daniels said.

Daniels scheduled a victim impact panel, which she ordered Tucker and Fitzgerald to attend, for Aug. 16.

"I am pleased that the legal process concerning the incident that occurred on Feb. 26 in front of the Black Culture Center is completed," Chancellor Brady Deaton said in a news release. "We remain committed to promoting and reinforcing diversity at MU."

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