MOUNT VERNON — A hate crime is something that happens in a big city or down South, but not in Knox County. Yet this is the charge Dale Klein, 18, faced in juvenile court this morning.
Charged with two different counts, Count 1 accuses Klein of committing aggravated menacing against Robert Cantu, 18. This would be a first-degree misdemeanor if committed by an adult.
The second count accuses Klein of committing ethnic intimidation against Cantu by reason of race, color, religion or national origin. This charge would be a fifth-degree felony if committed by an adult.
The case is in juvenile court because Klein was 17 years old at the time of the incident. The case was handed over to prosecutors on Dec. 8, 2008.
In court this morning Klein, through his lawyer, Mark Zenghi of the Knox County Public Defenders Office, withdrew his original plea of not guilty, and made a plea of no contest to the second charge — the more serious of the two — which is a fifth-degree felony. Because of that plea, the state agreed to drop charges on the first count, a misdemeanor.
According to Cantu the incident occurred on or about May 30, 2008. Cantu said he was with a friend when Klein and three others jumped him, and tied a rope with a noose around his neck. The other end of the rope was tied to a truck and Cantu said he was dragged for several feet. After stopping the truck, the attackers, allegedly including Klein, exited the truck and began to attack Cantu. According to Cantu, a passer-by, Ezzy Thompson, who was known to Cantu, intervened, chasing off the attackers and removing the noose from Cantu’s neck.
“[Thompson] was with his girlfriend,” said Cantu. “He saw me on the ground and ran over and pushed the guys off me. He got the noose off me. I’ve known Ezzy for about eight years. He was just in the area.”
Cantu’s mother, Marcie Cantu, said it took local police much too long to take action on the incident.
“They never made any arrests,” Marcie said. “They never contacted me back. It took 10 months [to charge Klein]. And only after the ADL’s prompt.”
The ADL is the Anti Discrimination League.
“The big question is, why haven’t the other three people been charged,” she said. “And if I want them charged I have to find out who they were and where they lived. That’s not my job. That’s the police’s job.”
Robert Cantu was also involved — as a victim — in a beating that took place at a party. The beating was videoed with a cell phone.
“That was six months before the dragging,” Marcie said. “It took seven months for the police to take action. They charged someone and he got six months, but they gave him five months instead. And they didn’t notify us, which they should have.”
Marcie believes these two incidents show a bias by local law enforcement.
“Definitely,” she said. “There’s definitely something going on with the police department. The district attorney blames the police department; the police department blames the district attorney. Bottom line is, they never got back to me in 11 months. I called twice a week every week. I never spoke to a detective. They never came to get the photos [of Robert’s injuries]. Then I got a trial date. How are you going to prosecute a case against somebody if you don’t even have the evidence? I blame a little of both of them. It’s out and out discrimination.”
In court, Presiding Judge James Ronk questioned Klein on his decision to enter the plea. Ronk read Klein his rights regarding his right to be represented by legal counsel, and his rights regarding what he could do if a trial were held.
“Do you understand that by making this plea you give up all those rights?” Ronk asked.
Klein answered “Yes, sir.”
Ronk outlined the maximum sentence for the charge, which could have included six months in jail. Ronk also noted that negotiations had taken place between representatives of both parties and an agreement had been worked out, but that he was not bound by those agreements.
Marcie Cantu made a brief statement to the court.
“First I want to thank everyone involved,” she told the court. “This has impacted our lives deeply. We have the right to live here just like everybody else without being harassed, hurt or intimidated. We need to send a message out to the community that you cannot treat other human beings in this manner. You will be brought up and you will be punished.
“I wish you well, young man,” she told Klein. “May God bless you and I hope this is a thing that will turn you around.”
“What you did was shameful,” Ronk told Klein. “It brought shame on you and apparently brought some shame upon this community. And that is something you should regret. I also know this, Mr. Klein. All of us were 17 at one time and have done something stupid. We all make mistakes. You made a significant mistake. Generally speaking, in this world we treat other people the way we want to be treated. I kind of doubt that’s what happened. You certainly are deserving of some punishment.”
In response to Ronk’s question as to whether Klein was working, Klein said he was not working, but hoped to join the armed forces after he was through serving his sentence.
Ronk sentenced Klein to 10 days in the Knox County Jail, court costs and a $100 fine. Klein was immediately remanded to jail. Ronk explained that because Klein was now 18 the sentence would be served in an adult facility; Klein’s request to serve in the local facility was granted.
Assistant prosecutor McConville explained the 10-day sentence to the News.
“My recommendation was 30 days,” he said. “But there was no proposed joint recommendation between the parties, so each side gets to make a proposal, and then it’s up to the judge.”
Marcie Cantu spoke to reporters after the hearing, and expressed her disappointment with the verdict.
“It was supposed to be 30 days, and even that wouldn’t have been enough,” she told the News. “They put a rope around his neck and they towed him. There is no justice, and that’s pretty obvious.”