A pair of alleged racially-driven incidents on a McDowell school bus in January resulted in a conviction for a McDowell High student in District Court on Wednesday.
Emerick Jet Gilliam, 16, of Bat Cave Road in Old Fort, was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and ethnic intimidation. He was given a 45-day suspended sentence. He must serve 18 months of supervised probation and 48 hours of community service. He must serve 30 days of electronic house arrest. He must not have contact with the victim or all but one of the student witnesses. He must pay court costs.
On Jan. 26, an Old Fort mother filed a criminal complaint to the magistrate’s office regarding her 14-year-old son after she was told by the McDowell County Sheriff’s Office about a string of alleged incidents that occurred on a school bus that month. According to court documents, the mother claimed that Gilliam, a McDowell High School student, had assaulted her son, a mixed-race student from West McDowell Middle School, on two different occasions on Jan. 10 and Jan. 19 and threatened him with a racial slur. The case was eventually taken to District Court.
During the five-hour trial on Wednesday, Prosecutor David Denninger laid out the events as described by the mother, the son, and a group of middle and high school witnesses: Gilliam, the victim, and another African-American student were reportedly involved in a series of altercations between September and January, which included physical roughhousing and racially motivated insults with online videos and song lyrics. During the two incidents in question on Jan. 10 and Jan. 19, Gilliam allegedly choked the victim with a rubber exercise band and claimed, “I’m going to hang you, (expletive)” and, on the latter date, struck the victim with a broken pencil on the face and body, causing facial lacerations and a puncture wound to the leg. The prosecution also alleged that Gilliam had attempted to set the victim’s hair on fire with a lighter during one of the altercations. Photos of the victim’s face and leg wounds were presented to the judge for consideration.
During testimony, Gilliam claimed that the two instances did not happen, and that the victim himself instigated an assault by punching the defendant in the genitals during a game with friends. According to Gilliam, after he tried to defend himself, the victim pulled out a pencil and tried to stab him in the same area. Under oath, Gilliam admitted to using the racial slur in question as a response to his alleged attack, but that it was not aimed nor intended for the victim or the other African-American student in a derogatory or hateful manner and was the only racial slur he used.
As Denninger took testimonies from the victim, the victim’s mother and the student witnesses, defense attorney Mike Edwards claimed that there were inconsistencies between the witnesses’ testimonies and written statements to School Resource Officer Jason Cook. Such as, the victim and witnesses had a history of bad behavior, and that the victim’s mother had posted an angry Facebook post regarding the defendant, as well as unfounded claims that she requested front page coverage to The McDowell News. Minutes before the trial ended, Edwards presented two letters to the judge by character witnesses, which claimed that Gilliam did not exhibit disobedience or disrespect to his peers.
On behalf of the defense, bus driver Jeff Elkins was called to the stand.
According to Elkins, the victim and the witnesses exhibited routinely bad behavior and write-ups throughout the year. And, although he called on Gilliam and the victim twice to calm down for horseplay, he did not see the defendant choke the victim with the exercise band. When asked by Denninger if it was possible for him to miss or not hear any of the alleged action while driving, Elkins said, “It is possible.”
In making her final judgment at the 5 p.m. mark, Judge Laura Powell said the following: “I think this probably started out as playful teasing, but I think it became totally out of control on that school bus. I can’t imagine that there was no one to view what was going on this bus. It is bad practice, I think, to have middle schoolers and high schoolers on the same bus, and very dangerous, as evidenced by what was going on. For the most part, it seems that everyone was participating in criminal acts of the state on the school bus. Maybe the language he (Gilliam) thought was in play – I can’t imagine the extent it was used – that it could’ve been. Clearly, it is not. It can’t be tolerated, will not be tolerated and is never tolerated, at home or with my children or their friends. It is heartbreaking that it is still happening.”