Dropped appeal: Financier going to jail

Byron Harris ended up having a very different Monday morning May 23 than the one he'd been dreading for months: He'd expected to be in court again to face the man convicted of assault and battery in an attack Harris believes was a hate crime.

Instead he learned that on May 19, Sanjiv "Sonny" Bhatia, CEO and managing partner of Enhanced Investment Strategies, dropped his appeal of the guilty conviction and 10-day sentence he received December 9 in Charlottesville General District Court.

"I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off me," says Harris. "I had a hard time testifying in the first trial, and I wasn't looking forward to sitting in front of a jury and doing that again. But I was determined to see it through."

Harris's and Bhatia's paths allegedly crossed at the "Reeject Bush" table on the Downtown Mall October 29– days before the 2004 presidential election.

Harris testified that Bhatia not only disparaged the politics of Mac Schrader, who manned the Reeject Bush table for months last year, but also remarked, "Godd*** motherf****** faggots."

According to Harris's testimony, Bhatia asked him in graphic terms the last time he'd had sex with a man, grabbed Harris by the lapels and "bonked" chests with him, then leaned up against a building, pulled his zipper down and asked Harris, "You want this thing? Come and get it."

Harris called police who arrived and arrested Bhatia. In court, Judge Robert Downer apparently did not believe Bhatia's defense that the encounter was a political discussion and a case of mistaken identity and convicted him of misdemeanor assault and battery.

After the trial, when contacted by The Hook, Bhatia denied Harris' version of events and vowed to appeal.

Neither Bhatia nor his attorney, Denise Lunsford, returned The Hook's calls requesting comment on the decision to withdraw his appeal.

Harris has his own theories. He believes Bhatia hired a private investigator who was unable to find anything helpful to the hedge fund manager's appeal.

And Harris listened to the 911 call he made that night. "I was stunned by how powerful it was," he says. "I couldn't see how any juror could hear that and think it didn't happen. Obviously, I was a traumatized victim."

Harris, a consultant and former Region Ten counselor, was pleased with the 10-day sentence– but wishes Bhatia hadn't waited five-and-a-half months before deciding to withdraw the appeal.

According to the Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Jail, misdemeanor sentences typically are sliced in half, which means Bhatia will serve five days.

"What I really wanted all along was for this man to own what he did to me and to hear the word 'guilty,'" explains Harris. "I've suffered a lot of emotional trauma, and so has my family."

Harris praises both police Officer Tom Wood and Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Platania for their support and handling of the matter.

"I don't think the first trial was pleasant or easy for him," says Platania. "I'm glad he didn't have to go through it again."

Although Virginia does not protect sexual orientation in its hate crime statute, at the December trial Platania requested that Downer use his discretion to order a four-month jail sentence, a $2,500 fine, community service, and anger management classes.

"I don't usually ask for that," says Platania. "This was not a run-of-the-mill assault and battery."

And he urges people to remember that if someone's sexual orientation is the motivation for a violent assault, "This office will aggressively prosecute it."

Sonny Bhatia dropped his appeal and will probably serve five days of his 10-day sentence for assault and battery.

Mac Schrader's "Reeject Bush" table was the scene of the crime.