BOISE, Idaho – The panel that disciplines judges in Idaho says it has not received any verified complaints against the judge who sentenced a teen to probation for sexually assaulting a high school football teammate.
But the Idaho Judicial Council says it will investigate if such a complaint is received. It comes after Fifth District Judge Randy Stoker was widely criticized by some who thought a sentence for John R.K. Howard was too lenient and that the judge failed to recognize the racial implications of the case.
One online petition calling for Stoker to be removed from the bench had drawn more than 170,000 signatures by Thursday afternoon.
Howard, who is white, was one of three defendants charged with sodomizing a disabled black teen with a clothes hanger in the locker room of southern Idaho high school in 2015. Investigatory documents in the case showed the victim was bullied by his teammates and given nicknames based on racist tropes such as "fried chicken," ''grape soda" and "Kool-Aid."
"The Idaho Judicial Council is aware of numerous online petitions regarding the manner in which District Judge Randy J. Stoker handled the recent case," the council said in a statement Thursday. "It has not received a verified complaint against Judge Stoker. In the event that a verified complaint is received, the Judicial Council will investigate the complaint in accordance with Judicial Council Rules."
It's not uncommon for judges to be criticized when the sexual assault cases they oversee make national headlines. The California judge who sentenced former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner for sexual assault last year also had thousands of people call for his removal from the bench.
Judge Aaron Persky's critics complained that Turner's sentence of six months in jail was too lenient, but the California Commission on Judicial Performance later found that there was no evidence Persky displayed any bias.
Howard, then 18, was originally charged with forcible sexual penetration with a foreign object, and two minors were charged in juvenile court for participating in the attack. Howard now lives in Keller, Texas.
Prosecutors later dropped the sex charge against Howard and replaced it with felony injury to a child as part of a plea deal. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden later said the language of Idaho's statute on forcible sexual penetration requires sexual intent, something prosecutors didn't think applied to the assault.
The judge agreed and said he believed the nicknames were given because the victim liked those foods, not because his coaches or teammates were racist.
"If this was a sexual offense, if this was a racially motivated offense, the good order of protection of society would say that you need the penitentiary," Stoker said during the sentencing. "It's not that."
The judge and prosecutors have faced criticism over that call.