A former student at the University of Mississippi will spend six months in prison for hanging a rope and a Georgia state Confederate flag on a campus statue of James Meredith, the first black student to attend Ole Miss.
Defense attorney David G. Hill argued that Graeme Phillip Harris shouldn’t be sent to prison because he, along with two fraternity brothers, were heavily intoxicated when they vandalized the statue last year.
But U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills wasn’t persuaded. At a court hearing this week, he sentenced Harris, 21, to six months in prison and a year of supervised release. Harris will begin serving his sentence on Jan. 4, 2016.
Harris, who works part-time for his parents’ cell-tower construction company in Georgia, was arrested on March 27, the same day he was indicted on charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights and using a threat of force to intimidate African-American students. He pleaded guilty to the second count on June 17 under a deal with prosecutors.
The other two participants have been identified, but not charged for reasons that have not been publicly explained. The FBI says the investigation continues.
“Those who would use threats and intimidation to spread fear and hatred through our schools and workplaces should know that the Department of Justice will vigorously prosecute these cases,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said.
“No one should have to endure threats or intimidation because of their race or the color of their skin,” she added.
Harris, a high school sports star from Alpharetta, Ga., enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a freshman. He joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, where under-age drinking was rampant and “racism was blatantly and actively practiced,” the defense attorney told the court.
“If Graeme weren’t wasted drunk on Feb. 16, 2014, he would not have engaged in such thoughtless, ill-advised and downright stupid conduct,” Hill told the court in a sentencing memorandum.
“When he sobered up after the incident, Harris sent his younger sister a text message that said, “I have done something that will mess up the rest of my life,” the defense attorney said.
“What Graeme has put his family through, what he has done to himself and the harm he has caused to others at the University of Mississippi, have all taught him some serious life lessons,” Hill told the court.
Sigma Phi Epsilon closed its Ole Miss chapter immediately after Harris and two other white fraternity members were linked to the crime.
The above image was taken by Blythe Dorn for Hatewatch