UPDATE: Two MU students charged in cotton ball incident

Monday, April 19, 2010 | 5:04 p.m. CDT; updated 11:05 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Cotton balls lie scattered in front of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center on Feb. 26. Witnesses said the cotton balls were thrown around the building between 1:30 and 2 a.m. early that morning.

UPDATE: 6:13 p.m.

COLUMBIA — Two MU students arrested in connection with the Feb. 26 cotton ball incident at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center have been officially charged with littering — not a hate crime.

Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Ryan Haigh said both Zachary Tucker, 21, and Sean Fitzgerald, 19, face Class A misdemeanor charges. They were arrested on suspicion of tampering in the second degree on March 2. MU Police said then that the incident was classified as a hate crime, which would have had the possibility of a harsher penalty.

A Class A misdemeanor carries a maximum one-year sentence or a fine, or both.

The two students spread cotton balls in front of the center, sparking outrage from students and the community. They apologized for the incident through their attorneys on March 5.

"When it's said and done, the cotton balls on the lawn being blown around didn't amount to the level of substantial interference as it is defined by the law," Haigh said, using the language that defines a tampering charge.

"We are disappointed but not surprised," Kevin O'Brien, Fitzgerald's attorney, said of the charges today. "We are very concerned about the charges. We take them very seriously."

According to a previous Missourian article, both were temporarily suspended from MU following the incident. Tucker agreed to withdraw from the university until the fall semester, according to the article. O'Brien confirmed today that Fitzgerald had withdrawn as well.

MU News Bureau released a statement saying the university was not involved with the legal process or charges, but no one at the university has been reached for comment on whether the students will return to MU. The Missourian previously reported that Fitzgerald and Tucker must "meet an obligation" before being charged, though no one then would speak to what that obligation was.

O'Brien said today that the students must complete several tasks, including community service, to help their chances of being readmitted in the fall. He said there is a deadline on completing those tasks, but could not say when that deadline was.

In addition to their suspension from the university, both students were placed on an interim leave of absence from the Naval ROTC program, where they were both midshipmen.

"They will continue on a leave of absence until their standing within the university and their standing within the civil process has been determined, and then we will determine whether they are fit to continue in Naval ROTC," said Mike Waldhauser, commander of MU's Naval ROTC unit.

Nathan Stevens, director of the Black Culture Center, declined to comment on the charges.

Roger Worthington, assistant deputy chancellor and chief diversity officer at MU, said in an e-mail statement: "I believe that the university has taken pro-active steps to respond to this incident on our campus and to bring our internal process to a just conclusion. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is ongoing work that needs to be done."

A sentencing hearing has been set for April 29. Christopher Slusher, the attorney representing Tucker, said he anticipates Tucker will plead guilty. O'Brien said he anticipates Fitzgerald will plead guilty too.

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