By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Supporters of 21-year-old O'Neil Walker label his predicament a disgraceful case of racial profiling. Just before graduation this spring from Middlebury College in Vermont, the African American senior from the Bronx was thrown out of school for allegedly entering a classmate's dorm room last winter without permission.
Nothing was taken, and nobody was hurtexcept for Walker and his good reputation.
In April, the school held a private hearing and suspended Walker indefinitely for "behavior unbecoming of a Middlebury College student." In early May, that ruling was upheld by an appeals board. Both hearings were closed to the public. School officials insist that they have strong evidence, but Billy Murphy, a Baltimore lawyer brought into the case by the father of Nolan Weltchek, one of Walker's classmates, tells the Voice, "It was a kangaroo court. No lawyers were allowed in, and the burden of proof was set very low."
A last-ditch attempt by Walker to get a court injunction against his suspension failed, and he was left on the outside, looking in.
Last week, while many of Walker's classmates were heading to beach homes and celebratory trips abroad, Walker was sitting in his mom's tiny apartment in the Bronx. Hyacinth Newby works as an attendant to the elderly; her son would have been the first in his family with a college degree.
"They threw him out like garbage," she says. "It really hurts, it's really painful. I'm proud of my son anyway."
He still intends to go to law school. Sad, but composed, Walker says, "I just want the degree I've put years of work into. That's the important thing now."
Students from modest backgrounds like Walker's are far from the norm at Middlebury, where annual tuition, room, and board are more than $40,000. Still, each year the college in west central Vermont, a five-hour drive from New York City, accepts about 10 freshmen from New York City public schools through an arrangement with the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit group that identifies exceptional high school seniors and connects them with high-powered liberal-arts colleges. Walker, with his solid academic record and exotic extracurricularscoed cheerleading and membership in a nationally known dance troupe, for examplewas of typically high-quality Posse stock.
Many of Walker's classmates thought so. At the May 22 Middlebury graduation ceremony, during which 544 graduating seniors (among them 11 African Americans) got to celebrate, about 100 students backed up their support by attaching labels with Walker's name to their robes and clothing. At least as many people protested the exclusion of Walker from the ceremony as protested Rudy Giuliani's commencement address.
"This place is apathetic as shit," says Nolan Weltchek. "This place is full of rich white kids that don't care about anyone, so for people to get riled about something is a big deal."
"This has been a serious miscarriage of justice, for I am innocent of all charges brought against me," O'Neil Walker wrote to Middlebury's Judicial Appeals Board in April. "I was raised by a single mother in a Christian household which instilled in me the values of honesty, integrity, and respect. I have always played by the rules . . . for the past three and a half years I have been an upstanding member of the Middlebury College community."
Walker also tried to make his case on specifics. "It is important to understand up front how thin the evidence was that convicted me despite my innocence," he wrote. "I was charged with intrusion into five rooms. The occupants of four of the rooms thankfully were honest and have consistently testified that they could not say that I was the intruder. Only one personDavid Hawkinsidentified me as the intruder into his room. However, Mr. Hawkins, who is Caucasian, originally identified three other African Americans in the [college's] face book as possibly being the intruder."
In fact, Walker's troubles began not on campus but in a nearby store at the start of the spring semester, when he and his friends were approached by a student he says he only vaguely recognized from living in the same dorm complex.
"Hey, aren't you the guy who was in my room a couple weeks ago?" Walker remembers the athletic-looking, blond senior saying. "Yeah, it is you! You're the one!"
With that, Walker's life went south: David Hawkins fingered him to school officials as the black male who had entered his room and crashed on the floor without invitation one night. The college administration attempted to link an assortment of other unsolved trespassing cases to Walker, including a charge involving sexual touching. Ultimately, none of those charges stuck. But after the two closed hearings, Walker was found guilty of what amounted to being in Hawkins's room uninvited. Walker was not only suspended "indefinitely," he was also given 24 hours to pack up his dorm room and get out. He's not allowed on campus.
Months later, David Hawkins stands by his story. "I gave my testimony in the hearing and I stand by everything I said," Hawkins tells the Voice from his parents' home in northern Virginia. "I am not a liar."
Attorney Murphy says no one is accusing Hawkins of anything. Identifications can be sincere but false, says Murphy, and because it is particularly easy for people to misidentify faces across racial lines, ID experts are often hauled into courtroomsin the real world.
College officials also stand by their actions. Walker's professed innocence aside, Middlebury dean Tim Spears, when asked if expulsion is not a harsh penalty for crashing on the wrong floor, says, "How would you feel if your apartment were invaded at night? Anyway, there are details that aren't part of the public record. We don't conduct our judicial proceedings in the public forum."
And that's what ticks off Walker's supporters.
"They're just circling their wagons around, and it sickens me," says lawyer Robert Weltchek. "For them to simply hide behind their rule book, saying, 'procedure was followed,' is very scary to me. They are not [legal system] professionals. They orchestrate these tribunals that can ruin people's lives. They couldn't do this at a public school where students are guaranteed due process."
To understand how a senior in good academic standing with no prior disciplinary problems could get kicked out of school for allegedly trespassing, you need a sense of the school's racial climate over the past year.
According to school records obtained from Addison County court files, paranoia started building last November, when a male student in the large dorm complex Ross Commons woke up to find a figure crouched on the floor at the foot of his bed. It was dark, but the student could see that the intruder had close-cropped hair. The alleged intruder said nothing as he crept from the room and disappeared, leaving only a calling carda pair of Tootsie Roll lollipopson the floor, sticks crossed, like some sort of symbol.
About a week later, in the same dorm, another student reported waking up after a night of partying to find a strange man "rubbing his penis." The victim reported that he tried to grab the intruder but the mandescribed as a black man with long "nappy" hair sticking out of a dark hoodieran from the dorm.
A campus alert went out, warning students to be on the lookout for a college-age man of that description. The rumor mill went into overdrive.
"There's a lot of gossip and rumor here," says Weltchek. "It's a lot like high school. People started joking about the 'Ross Toucher.' " The real culprit, or maybe just a prankster, fanned the flames by posting a note on an Internet message board claiming to have successfully donned a "nappy" wig in order to get off. A group of students started a spoof Internet forum titled "The Man With Nappy Hair Came Into My Room and Touched Me" and used a picture of a black, Afroed boy. African American students were furious.
A couple of months later, things died down, but for Walker, events were about to heat up. Fall semester ended, there was a break, and David Hawkins was one of many students who chose to switch rooms at the start of spring semester. The first night in his new room was January 30, according to documents, and Hawkins had had "six or seven" drinkshe originally told investigators that he had had only two drinksbefore he crashed in his room at 2:30. Hours later he awoke to find a kid he didn't know lying, possibly sleeping, on his floor. The two argued, according to Hawkins. The crasher said it was just a mistake, that he'd crashed there because he thought it was still the room of his friends from the previous semester. But Hawkins didn't believe him and later told the college's director of public safety, Elizabeth Boudah, that he wanted his uninvited guest caught. Hawkins pointed to three black students from the Middlebury face book who he said resembled the intruder. Fortunately for each of them, none were on campus that weekend. That might have been the end of it, but two weeks later Hawkins spied Walker and his friends on a beer run. Hawkins later told campus police, according to records, that he was "95 percent sure" Walker was the intruder.
But O'Neil Walker looks nothing like the description Hawkins gave Boudah. Hawkins reported that the intruder had high cheekbones and a light complexion, while Walker's cheeks are rounded and his skin is a rich, dark-brown color. Hawkins also said the intruder had an "African" accent, while Walker's diction is crisp and unaccented. Nevertheless, it was decided that Walker was not only a serious suspect in this case but in the others. He was absolved of all but the Hawkins incident.
O'Neil Walker may not have fit the description of the intruder, but he fit the profile.
"Middlebury failed to see the type of person he is," says Walker's mom. "They are so willing to put the blame on somebody. They don't care if they destroy a person. He's innocent, he's been framed. This shows you can't trust everybody."