SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A 19-year-old Skidmore College student struck a plea agreement Tuesday morning that dismisses charges brought against him under the hate crimes statute after a brawl in December.
Justin J. Tavarez was accused of shouting racial epithets and leading a four-person assault - with three other Skidmore College students - on a man as the victim sat inside Compton's Restaurant on Broadway on Dec. 18.
The victim, Christopher McCarthy, was treated for his injuries at Saratoga Hospital.
McCarthy, who is white, was at the restaurant with his friend George Parker, who is black, police said. Parker is a Saratoga County sheriff's deputy who was off duty at the time of the incident.
The four students allegedly involved in the attack are all black or Hispanic. The racial epithets were directed at Parker.
When Parker stepped away from the table to use the bathroom, Tavarez approached McCarthy and was joined by the other three students in assaulting him.
Tavarez, a Bronx resident, was initially charged with the felonies of second-degree assault and fourth-degree criminal mischief, both as hate crimes. The hate crime status elevated the charges to felonies.
Tavarez was also charged with misdemeanor fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon.
On Monday, Saratoga Springs Police took a statement from a final witness to the incident. The statement was provided by a Skidmore College student who is acquainted with the four students charged in connection with the incident. The latest witness was not charged with any crime.
The witness told police the use of the ‘n' word toward Parker was taken out of context and was not meant as a racial slur, according to a law enforcement official close to the case, but who was not authorized to speak about the case.
Saratoga County District Attorney James Murphy said the "significant differences" in witness statements, as well as the lack of physical and biological evidence, presented difficulties in meeting the burden of proof for a hate crime.
"Although the ‘n' word was used, it was not intended or perceived in an offensive context by either the prosecution or the defense witnesses and therefore does not meet the statutory requirements for a hate crime," Murphy said.
"In order to prove a hate crime, you have to prove the word uttered was intended to be hateful, and the person who was the victim was targeted because of that particular word. In this case, we have the victim (Parker) who claimed the word was used - but not used as a racial slur. He didn't take it in a threatening way," Murphy said Tuesday.
Shortly after the incident, police said the students loudly questioned why a black man was sitting with a white man inside the restaurant. Murphy said on Tuesday there was no evidence to support that claim.
"It's important to make the distinction. An assault did in fact occur, and in fact (Tavarez) pled to assault. What the underlying motive was I don't know, but it doesn't fit the hate crime statute, especially when I have victims who are telling me that it was not taken in an offensive way," Murphy said.
As part of Tavarez' plea deal, the charges will be reduced to misdemeanor third-degree assault, and Tavarez will be required to pay restitution to McCarthy for his medical expenses. McCarthy could not be reached for comment, but Murphy said McCarthy was satisfied with the plea agreement.
Tavarez will be sentenced on April 5 in Saratoga Springs City Court. Skidmore students Elijah A. Johnston, 18; Korvin E. Vincente, 19; and Sakhile C. Sithole, 20, were each charged with misdemeanor third-degree assault in connection with the attack.
Johnston is scheduled to return to City Court on Feb.8. Vincente and Sithole will return on Feb. 15.