(MCT) — CHICAGO — An Alsip man was sentenced Wednesday to probation and ordered to write an essay about the lynching of blacks in America after he pleaded guilty to putting a noose around the neck of a black teenager and threatening to kill him.
The attack in December 2011 drew much media attention and led to Matthew Herrmann being charged initially as an adult with felony counts of committing a hate crime, unlawful restraint and battery for the attack. But in an unusual deal with Cook County prosecutors, Herrmann pleaded guilty last October to misdemeanor battery and agreed to participate in a “peacemaking circle” with the victim, his family, clergy and school counselors.
While the approach is more common in juvenile court, this marked the first time it has been used to resolve a case at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, the county’s main felony adult courthouse, prosecutors said.
Judge James Linn agreed to the deal and sentenced Herrmann to 2 years of probation. The philosophy student at a suburban community college also must write the essay on lynching and read it aloud next month at a peacemaking session with the victim.
Asked about the essay as he left the courthouse, Herrmann said, “They didn’t give me a word count.”
“I guess I’ll just do a three-page, average paper that I would do for school,” he said.
William Merritt, the father of the victim, told The Chicago Tribune his family was pleased with the outcome and hoped Herrmann had learned his lesson. He said Herrmann apologized to his son, Joshua, at a first meeting in January that he called “therapeutic.”
“I think teenagers don’t understand why they do what they do sometimes, so you’re never going to get a straight answer why,” Merritt said in a telephone interview. “Maybe through this process they can get a better understanding of the history and the implications of certain symbols.”
Prosecutors said Herrmann, then 18, and two friends, both juveniles, were upset with Merritt’s son, Joshua, then 17, because of his friendship with one of the boys’ female cousins. The three put a noose around his neck and hurled racial epithets at him, but Merritt was able to run outside, authorities said. One juvenile, then 16, held a knife to his throat and threatened to kill him, according to the charges.
In an interview with the Tribune a few weeks after the attack, Joshua Merritt said he felt his assailants “were being serious” and that if he hadn’t fled he “might be dead.”
Merritt’s father said his son continues to suffer struggle psychologically from what happened.
One of the juveniles, who was 17 at the time, pleaded guilty to battery, was sentenced to 2 years of probation and was also ordered to take part in a peacemaking circle, said Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office.
Charges against the third teen were being handled by Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office because his mother works for the state’s attorney’s office. He is scheduled to plead guilty next week.
One of the organizers of the peacemaking circles, Father David Kelly, a Catholic priest, said the racially charged allegations surrounding the case called for a different approach.
“In this kind of case it’s deeper than just a law being broken,” Kelly said. “The community itself — especially the African-American community — was harmed.”
During Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, Herrmann, who turns 20 on Thursday, stood in court in an untucked blue dress shirt and tie with a small wooden cross dangling from a rope necklace. When the judge asked him if he had anything to say, Herrmann blurted out “my birthday is tomorrow,” and then casually asked the judge where he bought the oil painting hanging behind the bench.
Herrmann’s mother, Cindy, 52, a taxi driver, told the judge she wanted to make a “symbolic gesture” by giving the victim’s family a copy of the 1961 Dr. Seuss book “The Sneetches,” that satirizes discrimination.
“I read it to my son when he was little,” she said as she handed the book to Assistant State’s Atty. Kathy Bankhead.
After the hearing, Herrmann declined to discuss the specifics of the case but denied any racial motivation for the attack. He said he still sees Merritt occasionally at Moraine Valley Community College, where both attend classes. Herrmann said the peacemaking circle made him feel that “justice had been served.”
“We just sat down and talked about what would make them feel better, how I could help them out and make up for this and what not,” he said. “We shook hands at the end.”