When Fairfax County police arrested 18-year-old Gurtej Singh at Centreville High in April, they charged him with felony assault and battery. He'd attacked a younger student and, saying the incident was ethnically motivated, police classified it as a hate crime.
But thanks to an agreement between Singh's attorney and the prosecutor, Monday afternoon in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, he was able to plead guilty instead to a misdemeanor. As a result, he won't have to serve any time in jail — but it's hanging over his head, in case he misbehaves again.
The incident happened April 24, at the school. Singh is an Indian Sikh, and he and two other boys, 17 and 14, confronted a 15-year-old Pakistani boy in one of the hallways. In court, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney John Murray presented details of the case against Singh.
He said the three assailants blocked the victim's way and Singh, of 14237 St. Germain Drive in Centreville's Knolls of Newgate community, told the victim, "Hey, you mess with one of my friends, you mess with me, too."
Murray said the Pakistani boy didn't know what Singh was talking about, but Singh wanted to fight and the victim didn't. The 15-year-old then went to the third floor of the school where, said Murray, "The defendant pushed the victim into a locker and punched him in the stomach with his fist."
Math teacher Susan Goldstein saw what was going on and told the assailants to stop and come over to her. They did so, and the incident was then reported to the police. All three assailants were later charged, and Murray said Singh admitted to police that he assaulted the victim.
Police said that, at one point during the altercation, the victim became dazed and fell to the ground. However, he did not need medical treatment at a hospital for any injuries he sustained.
Although Singh's attorney, public defender Lauren Bernstein, didn't deny her client's involvement in the incident, her version was slightly different. "The cause of the fight was a rumor in school that dealt with sensitive issues and other people," she explained. "And [Singh] said he pushed, but didn't punch, [the victim]."
She didn't elaborate further but, shortly after the incident, Centreville High Principal Pam Latt confirmed that the reason for the assault was because of the victim's ethnic origin. She said the school has many Pakistani and Indian students, and "there's a natural, cultural animosity that they've taken from their home or home country with them."
She said Singh hasn't been in this country very long and "there have been years of turmoil between India and Pakistan, fighting over borders." Nonetheless, understanding the motive for Singh's actions didn't let him off the hook. The school took action against him, and so did the authorities. Police also obtained juvenile petitions for assault against the other two boys.
If convicted of felony assault and battery, Singh could have received as much as five years in prison. Instead, he was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of simple assault, a misdemeanor — thereby taking the hate-crime element out of his punishment which, otherwise, would have been much stiffer. Murray then recommended that he be sentenced to 50 days in jail, with all of that time suspended.
He also recommended that Singh be ordered to perform 50 hours of community service over a two-year period. "And he can't complete it all in one year," said Murray. "He has to do 25 hours per year — that way, he can reflect upon what happened, this year and next year."
Murray further advised that the case be continued for two years and that the charges against Singh be dismissed at that time, provided he completes his community service and stays out of trouble. The judge complied and imposed the sentence as recommended.