Again and again: CHS attacker back in court
It's been nearly three years since a series of attacks by a group of largely black Charlottesville High youths upon largely white UVA students drew national attention and reopened the racial wounds that never seem to heal here.
Six teenagers pleaded guilty to four increasingly brutal felony assaults in January 2002. Testimony and witness statements indicated that the attacks– which targeted white or Asian college students– left one with a concussion and another with a broken cheekbone.
The CHS students were considered "good kids." When they were arrested, the community rallied to their support and raised money for their defense– to the point that some were wondering: What about the victims?
Of the two teens who were considered the ringleaders and took part in all four of the January attacks, one was a young woman who seemed turned on by the violence.
She pummeled a female Piedmont Virginia Community College student while her cohort, a CHS football player, held the petite victim. He later told police that before the attack, he said he'd "enjoy beating up a woman."
The female CHS senior was sentenced in June 2002 to two months in detention for the four felony assault charges. The repentant CHS football player was ordered to approximately six months of house arrest.
The public wasn't informed of the football player's name in 2002 because he was 17 at the time of the assaults. But in 2004, his name– Vernon Howard– did turn up in print– in the Court Report in the Daily Progress.
In May, Howard, 20, was convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to 60 days in jail, with 56 suspended. He was found not guilty of a disorderly conduct charge stemming from the same April 28 event.
Obstruction of justice typically involves interfering with a police officer. And according to the Virginia Code, one aspect of disorderly conduct is "a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom... such conduct is directed."
That has not been Howard's only court appearance since the CHS attacks, however. In fact, he's become quite a regular in Charlottesville General District Court:
-Disorderly conduct: dismissed 8/1/03
-Distribute marijuana: guilty 7/22/04
-Failure to appear on a felony charge: dismissed 2/26/04
-Failure to appear on a felony charge: recalled 4/15/04
-Obstruct justice: guilty 5/10/04
-Disorderly conduct: dismissed 5/10/04
-Failure to obey highway sign: guilty in absentia 6/1/04
-Revocation of suspended sentence: nolle prosequi 7/22/04
-Drive under a revoked/suspended license: guilty 7/13/04
-Drive under a revoked/suspended license: guilty 8/3/04
-Failure to appear: dismissed 9/7/04
-Drive under a revoked/suspended license: pending.
According to court records, Howard has racked up 120 days in jailall suspended except eight for his various misdemeanor convictions.
His driver's license has been suspended six months for the pot charge and twice for 90 days for other offenses.
That didn't keep him from accumulating three charges of driving with a suspended license. In fact, Howard was arrested two days in a row– July 5 and July 6– for driving without a license, and it's the latter charge that will bring him back to court next month.
Some community members are distressed that Howard's reprieve as a juvenile offender hasn't kept him on the straight and narrow.
"He was the primary attacker in my case," says Ben Bateman, one of the 2002 victims, who was left with a swollen eye, cuts, and a bruised ribcage after he was beaten while walking alone January 12 on Maury Avenue.
"I still feel a lot of the attackers got off too lightly," says Bateman, now a graduate student at UVA. "I don't think they've been taught much."
Kevin Cox was in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court the day Howard was sentenced for the 2002 attacks, and he still believes the youth's sentence was too light. "I witnessed his total lack of respect," says Cox. "I've been expecting to see his name in the public record."
Cox thinks juveniles who commit violent acts receive too much protection, and that state laws should be changed.
"This was a deliberate and malicious act," he says. "This should be made public and should be part of his record. There's no reason to shelter him. He should have to suffer the consequences of his actions."
Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman declined to comment on Howard.
However, he did explain that while juvenile records may be introduced in adult felony cases, they are not used as evidence for misdemeanor charges.
"The point of confidentiality in juvenile sentences is to give the young adult a fresh start," says Chapman.
"Kids who commit juvenile offenses significant enough to be placed on probation or worse tend to do well as young adults," he continues. "It's unusual for them to continue to commit offenses as an adult."
Howard has a message to those who think he got off too leniently for the 2002 felony assault and battery charges: "Tell 'em to deal," he says. "Tell 'em to kiss my a**. You can quote that."
He's outside the Charlottesville General District Court October 5 after his attorney obtained a continuance on his remaining charge for driving with a suspended license.
Because it isn't his first time, the charge has been amended to second or subsequent offense and is now a Class 1 misdemeanor. If convicted, Howard could be looking at up to 12 months in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
He says he's neither employed nor in college, and he shrugs off his frequent encounters with law enforcement. "I get caught sometimes," he says.
And asked the number of days he's spent in jail so far, Howard says, "I don't remember. My mind is f***** up."
The Reverend Alvin Edwards was a defender of the youths arrested in the assaults. He organized committees to examine issues of race in the community and town/gown relations, to try to understand what motivated the attacks, and to raise money for the defense of the youths– and belatedly, after some complaints, for the medical bills of the victims.
Asked about Howard's latest travails, Edwards says, "I can't comment on something I don't know about. I didn't know he was in trouble."
Edwards can report on some of the other teen attackers. "I just married one. One's in college, and one dropped out of school."
And the female ringleader who served two months in detention? "She's a third-year college student at Virginia State," he says.
"The attack definitely changed my life," says Bateman. "I'm very fearful to walk alone at night– very skittish, although I've improved over the year. It makes you less trusting. It was one of those life-forming events."
And he wonders about Howard. "Did he take advantage of this lenient court sentence? He struck me as someone clearly violent with a lot of problems."
Howard appears in court again November 1.
Former CHS student Vernon Howard: repeat offender.
COURTESY CHARLOTTESVILLE POLICE
The Rev. Alvin Edwards appeared in court to support CHS teens.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
And on October 3, 2003, after his arrest for intent to distribute marijuana.
MUGSHOT COURTESY CHARLOTTESVILLE POLICE
Howard's portfolio grows with an April 23 arrest for obstruction of justice.
MUGSHOT COURTESY CHARLOTTESVILLE POLICE