On January 31, 2016, three women who were then students at the University at Albany set off a firestorm when they reported being assaulted in a racially-motivated attack during an early morning argument on a CDTA bus. A jury found two of them guilty of falsely reporting the incident. But today’s sentencing in Albany County Court may not be the last stop.
Asha Burwell and Ariel Agudio were indicted by a grand jury after turning down an offer to make a public apology. A third defendant, Alexis Briggs, took a plea deal and agreed to perform community service, avoiding any criminal conviction.
In April, an Albany County jury found Burwell and Agudio guilty of falsely reporting a hate crime, but cleared them of assault and other charges. The two appeared for sentencing Friday in Albany County Court, where Assistant DA David Rossi told Judge Roger McDonough he would recommend probation if the women apologize and take responsibility for falsely reporting an incident. They declined.
After hearing oral arguments and considering objections, McDonough told the women and their attorneys he saw no benefit in incarcerating them. He referred to Aesop's Fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," citing it as an example of how the women's actions had affected the university and the community at large.
Each woman was sentenced to three years probation, ordered to perform 200 hours of community service and fined $1,000, which McDonough strongly suggested they pay for out of their own pockets, to refrain from asking their parents to pay. The two were facing up to two years in prison.
Later, outside the courtroom, Burwell's attorney Fred Brewington said there is much to be done from a legal standpoint to address the appropriateness of the determination by the jury and the judge's sentence. "I think the main focus of today was to ensure that liberty continued. And I think that that's been satisfied. But that does not end this saga, and that does not end where we have to go, which is down to the clerk's office to file a notice of appeal."
Agudio's attorney Mark Mishler also headed to the clerk's office, not before commenting on McDonough's invoking "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." "I do think victims of racial bias will be harmed by what happened in court, but not for the reasons that the judge has indicated. They will be harmed because, as we have indicated all along, people will become hesitant to call for help or seek assistance or to ask their community for assistance if they know that if they possibly are perceived to get even one detail wrong, that they will be villified, prosecuted, and face possibility, which was averted today and we're grateful for that, of jail. So we're very concerned about that. Racial bias at the University at Albany, it's real, I don't think there is a student, a black student or a student of color who can tell you otherwise."
Carlton Agudio, a man who had been in the courtroom gallery with the families of the women directed a rhetorical question to reporters. "Do you for one second think we would be here right now if there were three white girls on that bus were in a fight with a busload of black people?"