Written by reporters Kelsey O’Connor and Jolene Almendarez
ITHACA, N.Y. — The Cornell University student previously accused of attacking another student during an altercation in Collegetown was charged with a hate crime Monday and an additional charge was added against him stating that he damaged a woman’s phone because she caught him on camera using a racial slur.
John Greenwood, 19, was charged with third-degree attempted assault as a hate crime, a class A misdemeanor. He’s also being charged with misdemeanors for second-degree aggravated harassment and fourth-degree criminal mischief.
Greenwood was initially charged with misdemeanor third-degree assault which, if charged in connection with a hate crime, would have been upgraded to an E felony. Because the charge has been changed to attempted assault, the hate crime addition upgraded the charge from a B to an A misdemeanor.
He has maintained his innocence but apologized for his use of “unacceptable and inappropriate” language.
In response to the new charges, Greenwood’s attorney Ray Schlather said, “Unfortunately, Mr. Shewit has misled the police, the prosecutor, and this community. The objective physical evidence that has been discovered since the initial charges were filed contradicts his claims as to what happened after the verbal exchange. Mr. Greenwood was not involved in any physical altercation. In the fullness of time, this will become clear.”
District Attorney Matt Van Houten said, “Based upon my review of the police investigation and the evidence, it was my determination that it should be charged with a hate crime, but the appropriate level is attempted assault, third-degree.”
He said, “The evidence is what controls what charges can be filed. In order to charge someone with assault, there needs to be evidence of a physical injury which is defined by the penal law.”
In this case, that evidence was not present, Van Houten said. But he did make the choice to upgrade the charge to a hate crime.
“The defendant intentionally selected the victim in whole or substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the victim’s race, color, national origin and/or ancestry,” court records state.
Van Houten also added an additional charge — fourth-degree criminal mischief — against Greenwood.
For the new charge, records state that Greenwood knocked a woman’s iPhone 7 from her hands and intentionally damaged it by repeatedly stepping on it, cracking the screen.
The Voice previously reported that a black Cornell student, the complainant in this case, was returning home early on the morning of Sept. 15 on the 300 block of Eddy Street when he found a fighting happening and attempted to break it up. As four or five men white men left the property, they repeatedly shouted racial slurs and expletives at him. The student followed the men to their home next door to confront them and he said he was attacked. He was later taken to Cayuga Medical Center due to his injuries.
Court records: Witnesses say white men provoked fight, attacked at least 3 Cornell students and yelled racial slurs
According to newly released statements made to the police, a woman who was with the man who was attacked began recording an interaction between the two groups of feuding students.
The woman told police that brothers at Psi Upsilon, a now defunct fraternity at Cornell, repeatedly called the fraternity brothers from Kappa Sig “N——.” She said a Psi Upsilon brother also said that nothing would happen to him or other people in the fraternity because “his dad owns the university.”
While the woman attempted to take a photo of one of the brothers making racial slurs — allegedly Greenwood — she told police that he took the phone from her hand and repeatedly stomped on it.
She then told police in a statement, which appears as written in the police report :
At this point, I said to both of them I had a video of the brother in the white shirt saying “Nigger” and that he wasn’t going to get away with what he said. The brother with the glasses said, “Can I see your phone for a second?” While stating this he reached out and tried to pull my phone out of my hands, and missed as I moved it. I ran away from there (sic) house down the sidewalk while being chased by this 3rd brother from Psi Upsilon. While I was running away the brothers from Kappa Sig stopped him and told the guy to to leave me alone. I went back to the house because I was really upset about what had just happened.
Greenwood is the only person who has been charged in connection with the fight. The police have not commented about why only one person has been charged, but court records imply that the complainant was unable to identify other people who attacked him.
The incident has incited anger and action at Cornell University. Black Students United at Cornell occupied Willard Straight Hall shortly afterward.
In a statement after the incident, BSU said, “The continual assault on the mental, physical, and emotional health of black students, will no longer be tolerated. BSU is fully prepared to work with organizations and task forces to dismantle the deeply rooted structures of white supremacy on this campus.”
Since the initial charges, police have said they were investigating whether the altercation was a hate crime.
According to New York State law, a hate crime is considered when a person:
(a) intentionally selects the person against whom the offense is committed or intended to be committed in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct, or
(b) intentionally commits the act or acts constituting the offense in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct.
This story has been updated since originally being published.
Editor’s note: Per policy unanimously approved by The Ithaca Voice board of directors in April 2017, news stories do not contain mugshots of people until post-indictment or post-conviction unless there is an immediate danger to the community that could possibly be remedied by posting a mugshot.