In an unusual court ruling, Judge James Linn of Cook County, tacked homework onto a probation sentence.
Matthew Hermann, one of three teenagers accused of putting a noose around the neck of a 17-year-old African American student and shouting racial slurs at him, pleaded guilty in October to a misdemeanor battery charge. On Wednesday Hermann was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to write an essay on the history of lynching in America.
"They didn't give me a word count," Hermann told reporters from the Chicago Tribune. "I guess I'll just do a three-page, average paper that I would do for school." Hermann is philosophy major at Moraine Valley Community College.
The essay assignment was not the only unusual condition of the sentence. Lin also ordered Hermann to participate in a "peacemaking circle" with the victim, his family, clergy, and school counselors. The "peacemaking circle" is often used in juvenile court, but this was the first time it has been used to resolve a felony case in Cook County. Hermann, who was 18 at the time of the assault, was charged as an adult.
One of the other teenagers charged in the case, who was 17 at the time and pleaded guilty to battery, was also sentenced to two years of probation and was ordered to take part in the peacemaking circle.
The noose attack against 17-year-old Joshua Merritt happened in December 2011. According to the Chicago Tribune, Hermann and two friends, upset that Merritt was friends with one of the boys' female cousins, forcibly put a noose around his neck and shouted racial epithets at him. One of the boys, then 16, also threatened Merritt's life and held a knife to his neck. Merritt was able to escape, and at the time of the attack, told the Tribune if he hadn't run away he "might be dead."
While unusual, the order to write an essay on lynching certainly isn't the strangest or most embarrassing criminal sentence ever given. There have been several instances in recent years where judges across the country have ordered criminals to participate in acts of humiliation as part of their punishment.
In November 2012, Shena Hardin, from Ohio, was ordered to hold up an embarrassing sign on a street corner in Cleveland. Hardin pleaded guilty to failing to stop for a school bus while children were getting off. The sign she had to hold read, "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus."
One Ohio municipal court judge, Michael A. Cicconetti, is known as the master of "creative sentencing," and has handed down dozens of unusual punishments over the years. Cincconetti's sentences are usually both symbolic and embarrassing, from ordering vandals to parade through town with a donkey, to forcing an 18-year-old who robbed an adult video store to sit blindfolded outside the establishment holding a sign reading, "See no evil."
William Merritt, Joshua Merritt's father, told the Chicago Tribune that he and his family approved of the outcome of the trial, and expressed hope that Hermann would learn something from act of writing an essay on lynching.
"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 told the Tribune. "Maybe through this process they can get a better understanding of the history and the implications of certain symbols."