March 14, 2013

EDITORIAL: No Excuses for Bias Incidents

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On Tuesday, the perpetrator of one of last semester’s bias incidents — a racially-charged attack on four Cornell students in Collegetown in August — was sentenced in the Ithaca City Court to 15 days in jail. It took six months for Anthony Stephans to be brought to trial, and he will not begin serving his sentence for another two. Given the racial hatred involved in the crime, we are dissatisfied with the lack of seriousness with which the court treated this case.

The plea deal struck in court knocked misdemeanor charges down to violation-level charges, which means Stephans’ criminal record will remain clean. He will also be allowed to finish his semester at Trinity College before he reports to Ithaca to serve his jail time. The court seems to be allowing the guilty party to answer for his actions at his own convenience, which defies the very purpose of a judicial penalty. Stephans’ statement of apology — a single, generic sentence delivered emotionlessly in court Tuesday — left much to be desired by way of remorse for his harmful actions.

We believe the court’s apparent characterization of this incident as a mistake made while under the influence of alcohol oversimplifies and excuses the behavior. Stephans didn’t bump into the victims on the street and take it personally. He didn’t become enraged over a perceived slight. He launched an arbitrary, unprovoked and sustained attack on four random, innocent people. When the victims pleaded with Stephans not to touch them, he physically accosted them, allegedly shoving at least one to the ground. When they became so afraid that they fled, seeking refuge in a nearby residence, the perpetrator did not drunkenly stumble away; he actively pursued them. The epithets hurled at the four students not only included pointed slurs attacking their race and presumed sexual orientation; they went further than that, including threats of physical violence.

If the police reports detailing the victims’ account of the incident are accurate, then this was not a “little misadventure” inspired by alcohol, as the court seemed to imply on Tuesday. This was a hate crime. If we want to get serious about preventing bias incidents in our community — which includes the City of Ithaca beyond the Cornell bubble — the court system cannot make excuses for those who perpetrate them. To come away with a clean record from a crime that could have been justifiably tried as a criminal misdemeanor does not sit right with us.