Two of the three men accused of assaulting Wisconsin running back Montee Ball this summer pleaded guilty to battery charges Wednesday, but both were given a chance to avoid prison.
Wendell J. Venerable, 21, and Robert A. Wilks, 22, pleaded guilty to substantial battery, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison. But instead of imposing a prison sentence, Dane County Judge Rebecca St. John placed them in a first-offenders program.
"This gives you an opportunity to get the support and services you need to avoid coming back into the criminal justice system," she told both men, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
The judge didn't detail terms, but such programs generally last about a year and mandate that defendants meet requirements such as going to a class, paying restitution, doing community service and getting needed treatment. If the requirements aren't met, defendants can be re-sentenced.
Venerable and Wilks, both students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, were accused of attacking Ball in August as he walked behind two friends. They allegedly knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the head and chest, leaving him unconscious and with a concussion.
A third suspect is scheduled to enter a plea next month.
Ball, a star running back, has said he doesn't remember the attack and doesn't know why he was targeted.
Witnesses told investigators that one of the attackers claimed Ball had jumped him a week earlier, according to a criminal complaint. That was an apparent reference to a party that Ball attended, but police have said there was no evidence Ball was involved in a fight.
Venerable's defense attorney, Brian Hough, told The Associated Press after the hearing that his client was "a victim in a prior altercation involving Mr. Ball," though he wouldn't elaborate. He said they were pleased with the judge's decision.
A message left with Wilks's attorney was not immediately returned.
Ball wasn't at the hearing, but his father attended. Montee Ball Sr. told the judge he and his family weren't angry at the suspects but that the crime was "unexcusable."
"We just wanted to say that we hope that by accepting the plea it's to get the help that these individuals need," Ball Sr. said.
He recalled getting a terrifying phone call the night of the attack and being told that his son had been injured.
"The last thing you want to hear is that something has happened to one of your children," he said.