The county’s top prosecutor charged a Cornell student with a hate crime on Monday, accusing the sophomore of targeting a black student in Collegetown because of his race, punching him in the face and leaving him bloody and dizzy nearly two months ago in an encounter that altered many students’ perception of the campus climate.
Matthew Van Houten, the Tompkins County district attorney, and witnesses said John P. A. Greenwood ’20, who is white, targeted Solomon Shewit ’19, who is black, struck him in the face with a closed fist and then later knocked a woman’s phone out of her hand and repeatedly stomped on it after she had recorded him calling another student a “sand-nigger.”
Van Houten charged Greenwood with three misdemeanors for the alleged actions, including attempted assault in the third degree as a hate crime, which is the first time a Cornell student has been charged with a hate crime while enrolled since 2006, when Nathan Poffenbarger ’08 pleaded guilty to hate crime assault after stabbing a black man on campus.
“After conducting a careful and thorough review of the investigation conducted by the Ithaca Police Department, it is my belief that the charges filed are supported by the evidence and that there is a legal basis for the classification of the attempted assault charge as a hate crime under the Penal Law,” Van Houten told The Sun.
Greenwood was originally charged with assault, but Van Houten said Shewit’s injuries, “thankfully,” did not qualify for an assault charge, hence the accusation of attempted assault.
Shewit has said Greenwood and several other white men repeatedly punched him and called him a racist slur on Eddy Street.
“They said ‘Fuck you, nigger,’ over and over, as they were leaving,” Shewit told The Sun from the hospital on Sept. 15, shortly after the assault, where medical stuff ruled out a broken nose or concussion. “I was pretty bloodied up.” Reached by phone on Monday, he said he had no further comment.
Greenwood’s lawyer, Ray Schlather J.D. ’76, said his client “was not involved in any physical altercation.”
“Unfortunately, Mr. Shewit has misled the police, the prosecutor, and this community,” Schlather said in an email on Monday. “The objective physical evidence that has been discovered since the initial charges were filed contradicts his claims as to what happened after the verbal exchange.”
Greenwood previously apologized for using “language that was completely unacceptable and inappropriate,” and Schlather has said his client did not commit a crime.
A video obtained by The Sun, which has been reviewed by police, appears to show Greenwood calling another student — not Shewit — a “sand-nigger” and later adding, “Come fight us, nigger.” The recorded verbal exchange occurred about 30 minutes after the assault, witnesses said.
Witness statements filed for the first time in court on Monday describe a heated encounter in Collegetown that left Shewit “extremely disoriented,” according to one student, who said she had recorded a video of the verbal exchange to obtain evidence of discrimination.
That student told police that the man who Shewit later identified as Greenwood “started calling me ugly, and made fun of my bangs” before knocking her phone out of her hands and stomping on it after she said she had recorded him. He cracked the screen and damaged a credit card that was attached to the back of the iPhone 7, she said.
The woman said a member of Psi Upsilon, shortly thereafter, grabbed at her phone and chased her down the sidewalk until members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, of which Shewit is a member, intervened.
Shewit said that the altercation began when he and his friends were approached by several white men while returning home from a party shortly after midnight, he told police. The two groups got into an argument, and Shewit headed toward his house, he said, but the argument got louder and he saw a friend of his pushed to the ground.
He attempted to separate the groups, he told Ithaca Police, when the group of white men yelled, “Nigger! Nigger! Fuck you nigger!”
“I heard multiple voices yelling out the word ‘Nigger’ from that group,” he told police.
The woman who recorded the later verbal exchange told police that Shewit, after hearing the slurs, “ran over to [the men’s] house before anyone could actually stop him.” Shewit said he confronted them directly about using the slur but was not trying to start a fight when they began punching him.
Another witness said it appeared the man Shewit later identified was Greenwood “might have been drunk as he punched and missed everyone but did strike a car that was parked in the driveway.” The woman said Shewit “had blood all over his shirt” and his face and told her that he had been jumped.
Shewit told police he wants “criminal charges pressed to the fullest extent of the law for being physically attacked by these guys.”
Lindsey Hadlock, a Cornell spokesperson, said on Monday that the University had no comment. Asked if Greenwood is still a student or allowed on campus, Hadlock said Cornell has “no information to share at this time.”
The altercation thrust Cornell into crisis in September, with Black Students United declaring a “state of emergency for black students” and President Martha Pollack convening a task force to address persistent “bigotry and intolerance” at the University.
In the wake of the assault, Pollack said that “based on what we know, and pending final investigation, Cornell will not consider Psi Upsilon’s reinstatement as an affiliated fraternity.” Greenwood is believed to have been an underground member of the suspended fraternity, which shuttered its Cornell chapter days after the assault.
A few weeks before the Collegetown incident, a resident of the Latino Living Center reported hearing a member of a neighboring fraternity chanting “build a wall,” and in the weeks after the assault, an unknown student responded with the N-word to an electronic poll in a campus house and anti-Semitic posters were found in at least 10 locations on campus.
Greenwood is scheduled to be arraigned in Ithaca City Court on Nov. 29 at 9 a.m. in front of Judge Richard M. Wallace.