ST. PETERSBURG — A black 14-year-old high school student said Thursday his life was changed last week when a man slipped a hangman’s noose over his neck as a prank at a fast-food restaurant.
Police say Dionte Hall was the victim of a hate crime and arrested 19-year-old Louis John Giannola over the Jan. 14 incident at a Wendy’s restaurant in Largo, north of St. Petersburg. Giannola also directed a racial slur at the youngster, police said.
Dionte and his parents called a news conference Thursday to urge aggressive prosecution of Giannola and call for legislation that might hold parents responsible for instilling beliefs in children that result in violence against others because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.
Dionte, a junior varsity basketball player at Largo High School, said in a handwritten letter to President Bush that his life since the incident has been “crazy and confusing.”
“It’s hard walking into school every day and listening to people conversate and chitchat about what happened when I walk through the hallways,” he said. “I think about what happened, and it reminds me of what happened to the African-American man in Texas, who was dragged … to his death behind a truck.”
The family’s attorney, Grady C. Irvin Jr., said he has himself written letters to President Bush, Gov. Jeb Bush, members of Congress, Florida lawmakers and Democratic presidential candidates, urging them to support a law that would somehow hold parents responsible when they teach hate that results in violence.
“We recognize that legislating morality is a noble, yet unachievable aspiration,” Irvin said in his letters to officials. “However, our legislative and executive leaders do have the power to legislate the activities of those who have instilled in our youth the mission to commit violence.”
Irvin didn’t discuss details of how such a law would be enforced, but he said it might at least keep hate-crime defendants from using a legal defense of claiming their conduct was instilled in them in childhood.
Irvin said Dionte and his parents don’t plan to sue anyone.
“This is not about money,” Irvin said.
Police say a girl offered Giannola $10 to put the noose and the 20-foot rope around Dionte’s neck. The girl accused of offering the money was charged with a misdemeanor count of aiding a hate crime. Because of a prior criminal record, a second youth accused of having the rope and tying the noose was arrested on a felony charge of aiding a hate crime.
The teens, who were not identified because they are minors, told police it was a joke.
Dionte said he remained calm after the incident, returned to school and told his basketball coach, who took him to a school resource officer. Irvin said Dionte will have counseling to help him deal with that happened.