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Mercedes Ayers, 17, made the plea during a scheduled arraignment in Jackson before Judge William Syler, part of an agreement with prosecutors in exchange for the dismissal of the more serious first-degree burglary charge and its 10-year prison sentence. With friends and family in the gallery -- although not the victim -- the high school student pleaded guilty to third-degree assault motivated by discrimination that includes the hate crime status elevating the charge to a felony.
While that charge carries a possible four-year prison sentence, Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said after the proceedings that his recommendation will not ask for that. As part of his plea offer, Swingle said that he is recommending that Syler at the Nov. 5 sentencing instead place Ayers on five years' probation.
Conditions that Swingle will ask the judge to impose will be that she be ordered to complete her education through either a high school diploma or by obtaining her GED diploma, reimburse the victim for any medical bills and that she have no contact with the victim. Other conditions could be ordered at the judge's discretion, including a number of community service hours or counseling for anger management or sensitivity to alternative lifestyles.
The judge could also order Ayers to serve 120 days in the Cape Girardeau County Jail as part of so-called "shock detention." Swingle said he doesn't favor having Ayers serve any more time behind bars than she did this summer, when she was incarcerated at the county jail for 29 days until her $10,000 bond was reduced.
"To me, the bottom line is she just turned 17 years old," Swingle said. "She's still a child herself, really. It's not time for her to go to prison yet. If she gets into trouble during those five years of probation, the judge can give up on her. In my own opinion, it's not time to give up on her yet."
The victim in the highly publicized case, 41-year-old Jeana Terry, was not in the courtroom Monday morning. Later in the day, though, she said she had no quarrel with Swingle's recommendation. Terry's remarks were a reversal of sorts, too, considering that after the incident she objected to Ayer's request for a lowered bond and said she hoped the girl was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Both Terry and her partner, Lisa Lange, told police after the fight that they suffered anti-gay insults from Ayers and the other juveniles for weeks before the beating, in which Ayers allegedly pulled Terry from her South Park Avenue home and then proceeded to kick her and punch her. Afterward, Terry reported that she suffered at times from nausea and the lingering pain from a swollen face.
Later, doctors diagnosed her with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, with dizziness, a loss of balance and vomiting. On Monday, Terry said the dizzy spells have subsided and that the confidence that vanished in light of the attacks is slowly returning. Now, instead of wanting to see Ayers punished, she hopes she will get her life together.
"I don't want to see her in jail anymore," said Terry, who works to treat children and adolescents with emotional problems. "I want her to do what she's been saying she is going to do -- finish school, become the kind of person she wants to be."
Until Monday, Ayers and her parents denied that what they described as a fight had anything to do with the fact that Terry is gay. In media interviews, Ayers protested that she was simply responding to an altercation earlier in the day that was instigated by Terry and Lange. Ayers' mother, Nancy Harris, did not return phone calls Monday seeking comment.
Prosecutors say about one hate crime a year is reported in Cape Girardeau County. But Ayers, who is black, fits none of the data of a typical hate crime defendant. According to data provided by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, 121 hate crimes were committed in the state last year. Most offenders, about 60 percent, were white with biases against blacks. About 25 percent of those crimes were committed against people based on their sexual orientation, the report said.
100 Court St., Jackson, MO
600 S. Park Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO