JACKSON, Mississippi — A former University of Mississippi student who admitted helping place a noose on a statue of a civil rights activist is going to prison.
U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills sentenced Graeme Phillip Harris on Thursday to six months in prison beginning Jan. 4, followed by 12 months' supervised release.
Harris pleaded guilty in June to a misdemeanor charge of using a threat of force to intimidate African-American students and employees, and prosecutors agreed to drop a felony charge.
"No one should have to endure threats or intimidation because of their race or the color of their skin," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a written statement. Gupta leads the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.
Prosecutors say the Alpharetta, Georgia, resident and two other former students placed a noose and a former version of the Georgia state flag containing the Confederate battle emblem on the statue of James Meredith sometime before dawn on Feb. 16, 2014.
Meredith integrated Ole Miss amid rioting that was suppressed by federal troops in 1962.
Harris admitted to undertaking the plan after a night of drinking in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house. The fraternity closed its chapter in the aftermath.
Davis Hill, Harris' lawyer, had argued he didn't deserve jail time in a Sept. 2 court filing, saying that Harris had joined a fraternity which fostered racist behavior, was attending counseling to deal with alcohol problems and had admitted guilt.
"Graeme fully recognizes the folly of the conduct and attitudes that bring him before this court," wrote Hill, noting Harris had written a letter of apology to Meredith. "He has grown, improved and become more serious as a person."
Hill wrote that the seeds of racial bias were planted when Harris transferred to a Georgia high school seeking to play quarterback, only to have a black head coach pass over him for a black quarterback. He wrote those seeds bloomed at Sigma Phi Epsilon, where he said incoming pledges were taught to keep alive grudges over Ole Miss' purge of Confederate symbolism such as the Colonel Reb mascot and the display of Confederate battle flags at sporting events.
"Blatant racism was not only OK, it was expected," Hill wrote of the fraternity.
Harris faced up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Austin Reed Edenfield — who also took part in the vandalism, according to prosecutors and Mills — had been scheduled to plead guilty Wednesday to an unspecified crime. That hearing was postponed without explanation in court papers. The third former student alleged to have taken part not been charged. Prosecutors said the investigation is ongoing.
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