University of Montana Grizzlies running back Jeremy Calhoun on Wednesday was given a 24-month deferred sentence, along with 100 hours of community service and a $500 fine for a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a fight outside a bar in downtown Missoula in May.
Calhoun and his attorney appeared in Missoula County Justice Court on Wednesday after already signing a plea agreement with prosecutors and paying $9,862.67 in restitution to Aaron Misipeka-Ward, who lost two teeth in the fight.
The university issued Calhoun a two-game suspension on the eve of the Grizzlies' season opener for his involvement in the fight. Additionally, Calhoun will be suspended for a third game, his attorney said.
Calhoun pleaded guilty to the charge during the hearing.
Despite negotiating a plea agreement in the four months since the incident on May 5, the hearing stretched over an hour as deputy county attorney Mac Bloom and defense counsel John Smith debated key elements of the sentence.
The state had recommended to substitute Justice of the Peace Alex Beal that Calhoun receive a six-month suspended sentence, which would remain on his record, and 200 hours of community service. Smith contended 200 hours was excessive, and asked for 40 hours community service and a six-month deferred sentence, which would be wiped from his record if he completed the term without issue.
Smith argued that since the release of Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” was published in 2015, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office had been seeking unreasonable punishments against UM football players.
“I think judge, that, yes, it’s a serious offense but I also think, and this isn’t Mr. Bloom at all, but since Jon Krakauer’s book came out and we got a new county attorney there’s been a sensitivity toward Grizzly players,” Smith said. “I think they want the appearance they’re not going easy on Grizzly football players" as has been alleged was the practice in the past. "What has happened, then, is that they’re going harder on Grizzly athletes.”
County Attorney Kirsten Pabst said in an email that "my prosecution staff is trained to base charges and sentencing recommendations on four things: the facts established in the investigation, the applicable law, the constitutional rights of all involved and the needs of the victim. Defendants are held accountable regardless of what they do, or whether they are homeless, the principal of a school, wear a badge, or wear a jersey.
"Deputy Bloom is a talented trial attorney, ethical prosecutor and conscientious human being. I have no doubt that he followed office policy and did the right thing in this case," she wrote.
Smith also argued that while Calhoun had already pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge, he had essentially reacted in self-defense in a fast-moving situation in the early-morning fight on May 5.
A security camera video, shown on screen during the hearing, shows a fight involving Ward’s roommate and Calhoun’s brother, Justin, also a member of the Griz football team. As people are kicking and stomping Ward’s roommate, Jeremy Calhoun comes in to pull someone away from Justin. Ward walks up, wraps his arms around Calhoun to pull him away; then Calhoun turns around, squares up and punches Ward in the face, knocking out his two front teeth.
“Aaron grabs him and Jeremy doesn’t know who it is or how serious it is and essentially defends himself,” Smith said. “We didn’t go with a justifiable use of force defense because he feels bad about the damage he did.
"From day one, he's felt bad that his punch was destructive," Smith said.
Bloom took exception to the characterization of the fight, and Smith’s “back-door” insertion of a self-defense claim. Although Ward, himself a former member of the UM basketball team, had already made a statement to the court, Bloom called him back to the stand to testify about the fight. Ward said during the melee he had watched others pull dreadlocks from his roommate’s head, spurring him to try to break the fight up, but said he never stood in a fighter’s stance or did anything that would convey to Calhoun that he wanted to box.
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After Calhoun swings a second time, and appears to miss, Ward throws a punch back, also missing. At that point the fight seems to disperse and the video ends.
“It’s a brawl,” Beal said after hearing Ward’s testimony. “I don’t believe anyone there was shocked that it turned into what it did.”
Beal ultimately gave Calhoun the deferred sentence, although quadrupling the recommendation by his defense.
Calhoun did not make a statement to the court, although his mother came with a prepared letter, and apologized directly to Ward and his family.
“This isolated incident does not define my son’s character,” she said, fighting back tears as she spoke. “He’s not a violent person. He was not raised to be violent … We pray we’re all able to learn and move forward with our lives.”
Vanessa Francis, Ward’s mother, told the Missoulian in a text after the hearing that she believed two years away from bars and casinos, a condition of Calhoun's deferred sentence, is sufficient.
“I hope he uses this time to better his life,” she said.
Calhoun also is facing a disorderly conduct citation in Missoula Municipal Court, over which Beal is also presiding. In that case, he is accused of yelling profane language in public and calling a woman "a bitch." He pleaded not guilty to the charge on Aug. 31; his next hearing is set for Oct. 25.
UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam said Wednesday the university had not yet made a decision to penalize Calhoun for the citation, but was waiting for more information on the case. If a penalty is handed down, it would likely — in line with the student-athlete conduct code — be a minor punishment such as community service, notice to parents, suspension from practice, or something of a similar level, he said.
Haslam said coaching staff may impose their own punishment on Calhoun for the citation, which could include a third-game suspension.
Calhoun was a force for the Griz ground game last year, something that's been lacking in the first two games of the 2018 season. UM's three running backs have accumulated a total 73 yards in the first two outings. By this time last year, Calhoun had 199 yards in two games. He finished with a team-high 684 yards on 158 carries by the 2017 season's end.
Calhoun was not listed in the two-deep roster on Tuesday ahead of Saturday's game against Western Illinois.
"We've got two guys listed on the depth (chart)," head coach Bobby Hauck said Tuesday. "Anything in the two-deep, that's who we anticipate playing."
— Reporter Amie Just contributed to this report.