Two MU students must 'meet an obligation' in cotton ball case

Monday, March 29, 2010 | 4:20 p.m. CDT; updated 11:49 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 30, 2010

COLUMBIA — The two MU students arrested March 2 in connection with the scattering of cotton balls around the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center on campus will "meet an obligation" next week before the state charges them, Boone County assistant prosecutor Ryan Haigh said Monday.

Haigh would not give specific details about the obligation– only that it must be fulfilled next week and that once it is, “we will be filing charges.” The meeting of this condition will have some bearing on which charges the prosecutor’s office chooses to pursue, he said.

The students, Sean Fitzgerald, 19, and Zachary Tucker, 21, were arrested on March 2 on suspicion of tampering in the second degree. The incident was classified as a hate crime, which carries harsher penalties.

The two were released later that day on $4,500 bond each.

But nearly four weeks later, formal charges have not been filed against Fitzgerald or Tucker.

Haigh said the prosecutor's office has been reviewing the MU police's investigation of the incident, researching the law and "speaking to the interested parties." He would not identify the parties. The result of those discussions was the condition being placed on Fitzgerald and Tucker that they fulfill an obligation. But Haigh said that completing the task would not result in the state dropping charges against them.

"This is a showing of good faith on [the students'] part," Haigh said.

Fitzgerald and Tucker were temporarily suspended from the university following the incident, pending the result of the university conduct process, and placed on an interim leave of absence by the Navy ROTC. Both are midshipmen.

Since then, Tucker has agreed to withdraw from the university until the fall semester.  Tucker's attorney, Christopher Slusher, said that Donell Young, senior coordinator in the Office of Student Conduct, recommended that Tucker withdraw. Tucker will also do community service; it has not yet been decided when or for whom this community service will be performed, Slusher said.

When reached for comment, Young said he could not discuss specific student cases.

“Each case is based on the individual student and the individual violation,” Young said. “I make the informal decision based on what I feel is best suited to benefit the campus community and also the individual student.

“By that, I mean I try to determine what will educate the student and help them understand how to make a better, different decision in the future,” he said.

The student conduct review process usually ends with informal recommendations made by Young, which may include a letter of warning, a reflective paper, a research assignment, community service, suspension, dismissal or expulsion. Only students who reject these recommendations must go through a formal review, and this is very rare, Young said.

A community service requirement, like that recommended in Tucker’s case, may be chosen by Young or by the student, Young said.

Both Young and Slusher emphasized that these recommendations are separate from the criminal proceedings. Slusher would not comment on how Fitzgerald and Tucker's acceptance of the recommendations might affect the severity of the charges the prosecutor will pursue.

Previously, Slusher said he did not think the hate crime statute applied to the cotton ball incident at the Black Culture Center.

Milt Harper, attorney for Fitzgerald, would not say what obligations his client will be asked to fulfill. He also expressed uncertainty about the viability of the hate crime charges.

The incident, which occurred Feb. 26, prompted a town hall discussion of race issues and the need for a diversity course requirement for MU students.

By 5:30 p.m. Monday, Black Culture Center Director Nathan Stephens and MU Deputy Chancellor Mike Middleton had not returned phone calls or emails requesting comment.

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