Legal process runs course for Penn State riot defendants

Most plead down to month in jail or probation, fines

State College - Centre Daily TimesAugust 28, 2012 

Thousands of students arrived at Penn State this weekend for a new school year.

But university officials will not let a handful of them come back because of their involvement in November’s riot after the firing of former head football coach Joe Paterno. They’ve been suspended for one to three semesters.

In all, more than 40 people were charged in the riot, such as with felony rioting or misdemeanor failing to heed police’s orders to leave. All but two have received  punishment.

Some got a month of jail time and pleaded down from a felony riot charge to a misdemeanor. Others who were charged with misdemeanor failure to disperse pleaded down to summary counts and got probation and steep fines.

Everyone was ordered to serve community service.

In court proceedings over the past eight months, all but two accepted a plea deal from the Centre County District Attorney’s Office. One pleaded guilty before his trial, while the other plans to fight the charges in court.

“There are permanent consequences to such behavior, and I hope that people, including students who ideally need a clean record to succeed in the competitive workforce, would think twice before flooding downtown again,” said District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, who offered the defendants the plea deals.

The riot started out as more of a rally with students filling into the Beaver Avenue canyon. The crowd shifted to East College Avenue as police, who have said they had no notice of the Paterno firing, tried to restore order.

Police estimated the crowd was in the thousands.

A group of people, angry at the media, overturned a van from Altoona-based WTAJ-TV, causing more than $90,000 in damages.

Some hopped on top of cars. One man threw a lit cigarette toward the gas spilling out of the overturned WTAJ news van. Police ordered people to leave, arresting some they told more than once. Police started pepper-spraying the area.

The havoc was broadcast live by ESPN, and videos of the incident soon began popping up on YouTube. Police started compiling a suspect list from the videos, and one by one, they identified people.

Video proof was pretty hard to contest in court, said State College attorney Matt McClenahen, who represented a male student charged with felony riot.

“We were not in a position to go to trial when there was a video of my client engaging in vandalism of the van,” he said. “We just needed to get him the best possible plea deal we could.”

That deal ended up being this: A minimum 30 days in the county jail followed by a year of probation after his parole.

His permanent record, though, shows no sign of the felony charge. He pleaded down to a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief.

McClenahen said the District Attorney’s Office’s plea offer was reasonable.

His client, as well as all the others who pleaded down from the riot charge, was ordered to serve 100 hours of community service. Those who pleaded down to summary counts were ordered 50 hours of community service.

Parks Miller said she wanted to make sure those who harmed their community gave back to it.
“We carefully considered each scenario and added the community service component to make sure those charged had to donate their time to the community as part of their sentence,” she said.

Those who pleaded down from failure to disperse to summary counts avoided jail time, instead getting 90 days of probation for each summary offense. The most was 270 days, and they had to pay a $300 for each offense.

Most paid $900 in fines.

State College attorney William “Skip” Arbuckle represented one of those students charged with failure to disperse. He said his client, a freshman, was trying to get to a friend’s apartment but was told by police to get away.

“It was like, look, maybe I’ve got First Amendment rights,” Arbuckle said, but “in reflection, the downtown area was out of control, and it would have helped the police if everybody had left.”

He said they did not go to trial because the parents wanted the young man to take responsibility.
“I think his parents did not want to assert anything other than, ‘We raised our son — when there’s trouble cooperate with the police, and when there’s trouble, go home.’ ”

Arbuckle said his client’s parents pulled him out of school.

Collectively, the defendants owe $21,950 in fines.

They’re on the hook for thousands of dollars in restitution, too. Those who tipped over the news van shared the cost of more than $94,000.

Altogether, they were ordered to serve 2,330 hours of community service.

Some students were ordered to show up April 14 on Tussey Mountain for the Nittany Mountain Biking Association. That order was from President Judge Thomas King Kistler.

Some of the judges ordered at sentencing that the defendants not drink alcohol as part of their one-year probation. According to the county’s Probation and Parole Department, that also means they can’t have alcohol in their home, transport it or buy it.

One of the students challenged that, saying the alcohol provision would make his housing arrangement difficult because his roommates keep alcohol in their apartment. But the judge, Pamela A. Ruest, denied that.

Penn State’s side of the punishment found that 32 students participated in the riot. Ten were suspended, and the other 22 received probation along with a notice on their university transcript.

“The sanction level was determined by evaluating the severity of the specific student’s behavior, the impact on the community, any mitigating or aggravating circumstances of the incident, any relevant prior history, and a few other factors,” said university spokeswoman Lisa Powers.

As the State College community shifts from the quiet summer to the more frenetic September and fall season with home football games and 40,000 students calling this area home, the district attorney has a stern warning in case another event triggers strong reaction or upheaval.

“There are far more constructive ways to gather and voice opinions than to flood the streets, block traffic, tear down lights, tear up landscaping and flip over vans,” Parks Miller said. “We cannot allow that to occur as a matter of public safety and others, students especially, cannot and should not risk an arrest they will later regret.

“Have some respect for (the) community if you are part of it.”

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT

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