James Meredith statue incident nets fraternity suspension

Three Ole Miss freshmen were expelled from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity after they were found responsible for desecrating the James Meredith statue.  (AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning)

Three Ole Miss freshmen were expelled from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity after they were found responsible for desecrating the James Meredith statue. (AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning)

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – No state charges will be filed in a racially charged Feb. 16 incident on the University of Mississippi campus, but federal charges are still under consideration.

While federal agents were investigating Friday, the national headquarters of Sigma Phi Epsilon said the chapter at Ole Miss had voted out three freshman members after learning they “were responsible for desecrating the James Meredith statue.”

SigEp’s national organization also suspended the Ole Miss chapter and said national staff would work with chapter and alumni leadership to conduct its own investigation of the incident.

Early Sunday morning, one or more male individuals put a noose over the head of a statue of James Meredith, the institution’s first black student, whose 1962 enrollment triggered deadly riots that were quelled by some 30,000 federal troops. The statue also was draped with a defunct Georgia state flag that is dominated by the Confederate battle flag.

Three freshmen from Georgia identified with the incident reportedly agreed to meet with investigators on Thursday but did not show up. University Police Chief Calvin Sellers said their legal counsel had advised them against appearing unless arrest warrants were issued.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Daniel McMullen said Friday that his agency and the University Police Department will expand the investigation “for potential violations of federal law.” He urged anyone with information about the incident to call the FBI at (601) 948-5000.

Third Judicial District Attorney Ben Creekmore said his office would not file charges in the case, saying the facts of the case did not indicate the breaking of any state laws.

“We looked at basically four charges,” he said. “On the malicious mischief and destruction of the property charge, there was no defacing of the property – no injury, no writing.”

State law prohibits threats or intimidation aimed at keeping someone from attending school, Creekmore said, but “you needed more of a nexus between the threat and a particular victim.”

Trespass was the last potential charge considered, but he said the individuals involved had been lawfully present on the campus.

Creekmore added that Mississippi’s hate crime law “doesn’t create a crime in and of itself. It’s intended to enhance the punishment if you can establish that a crime was motivated by racial hatred.

“We can’t fit the situation into a crime even though the event is offensive to the core for all of us involved,” he said.

Lafayette County Prosecutor Bela J. Chain did not return a call on Friday to inquire about potential county charges in the case.

Whether charges are filed or not, those responsible for the statue incident are no longer welcome in their fraternity and SigEp will be reviewing membership “to ensure members’ values align with those espoused by the fraternity.”

SigEp said in its statement Friday that in 1959 it was the first national fraternity to open membership to people of any race, religion or creed.

errol.castens@journalinc.com