A Fayette County grand jury refused Tuesday to charge two college-age men who hung an effigy of Barack Obama from a tree last fall on the University of Kentucky campus, their lawyer said.
The grand jury dismissed charges of second-degree burglary, theft by unlawful taking and disorderly conduct against Hunter Bush, 21, and Joe Fischer, 22, who graduated from UK in December, lawyer Fred Peters said Tuesday.
In an interview Tuesday, Fischer and Bush expressed remorse and said they were not attempting to make a statement about race. They said they were making a political statement in response to news reports in October of an effigy of Sarah Palin that was hung at a West Hollywood, Calif., home.
But Bush said he now realizes the effigy was inflammatory.
"It was just a political prank," said Bush, a Republican. "We just weren't thinking of other people's feelings."
The effigy was found about 7:30 a.m. Oct. 29 hanging in a tree in the heart of the UK campus. It was dressed in a black sports jacket, khaki pants and Obama Halloween mask, with a noose around the neck.
State Democrats, ranging from Gov. Steve Beshear to Mayor Jim Newberry, swiftly denounced the incident. Several Republicans also cried foul.
A campus forum was quickly organized that night. President Lee T. Todd Jr. and students lined up to say it was not representative of the university.
University officials declined to comment Tuesday.
Peters said the men have taken sensitivity training and spoken with black leaders and ministers.
While the incident was in poor taste, authorities nonetheless overreacted by pursuing criminal charges, Peters said. The men were facing five to 10 years in prison.
"If they had hung Joe Biden, we would not be here," Peters said.
The men were accused of breaking into the Farmhouse fraternity house and stealing some of the materials used for the effigy, including the sports coat.
But Peters said fraternity members testified to the grand jury and did not want the men prosecuted. The men had access to the frat house, and a member let them borrow clothes days before Halloween.
The fraternity was not told that Fischer and Bush were planning to make an effigy, Fischer said.
The disorderly conduct charge was for the actual hanging of the effigy. Peters said the charge clearly violated the First Amendment.
Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said the grand jury represented a wide spectrum of the community. The jurors were thoughtful and deliberate.
The case was thoroughly presented to the grand jury, with a UK police detective and several fraternity members testifying, Larson said.
"In this instance they made the decision, I can only assume, that they didn't think there was sufficient evidence to meet the elements of the crimes that were charged," Larson said.
P.G. Peeples, president of the Urban League of Lexington, said it's ironic that the dismissal occurred exactly one week after Obama's inauguration.
Last week Washington was a mosaic of blacks and whites coming together to change the country, Peeples said.
"Did I want these guys to be put in the electric chair? No, we're not talking about that," Peeples said. "But I still think that as a community there should have been a message. I think the one that this is sending is not good."
The men should have been required to perform community service, Peeples said.
Peeples said he was not surprised by the dismissal. Based on comments made on talk radio, it seemed the community was treating it as "boys will be boys," he said.
Fischer and Bush said they're embarrassed by the incident. Both are currently job hunting, and they say they're not looking forward to answering questions about it from potential employers.
"I want this to all pass over me so I can find a career later," Fischer said.
The charges will remain on Bush's and Fischer's records despite the dismissal. Misdemeanor convictions can be expunged after five years. But due to quirks in Kentucky law, grand jury dismissals remain public, Peters said.
"The law needs to be changed," he said.
Reach Brandon Ortiz at (859) 231-1443 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1443.