University of Mississippi police are pushing for criminal charges to be filed against three 19-year-old male freshmen suspected of placing a noose and a flag with a Confederate battle emblem on the campus statue of civil rights icon James Meredith.
The students declined through their attorneys to be questioned by university police about the Sunday morning incident, which the school has described as vandalism on the bronze statue of Ole Miss' first African American student.
Campus Police Chief Calvin Sellers said in a statement Friday that he and the university’s lawyer believed that “sufficient evidence exists to bring criminal charges against the suspects,” and pledged to help state and federal authorities in the investigation.
The university said the three Ole Miss students are white. The FBI has said this week that hate crime charges could be filed if authorities determine that the act of placing the noose on the statue was meant to intimidate African Americans.
With tips pouring in after a $25,000 reward was offered, enough evidence had been gathered by late Wednesday to prosecute two of the students through the university’s internal judicial process, Sellers said. But the students did not show up to a scheduled meeting with officials Thursday.
The university later learned that the three students had retained attorneys, Sellers said. Federal law does not permit the university to release their names unless they are arrested.
The FBI declined to comment; Oxford, Miss., police couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Fifteen fraternity presidents at Ole Miss declared in a letter Thursday that they would immediately expel any member who was found to be involved in the incident.
A witness saw two young men leaving the area near the life-size bronze statue, which depicts Meredith striding forward. A coiled rope and a former Georgia state flag with a Confederate battle emblem were wrapped around the statue's neck.
Meredith, 80, told the Los Angeles Times this week from his Mississippi home that the incident showed that youths weren't being taught right from wrong. He said all the nation's ills would be cured if every child learned the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer before reaching kindergarten.
In 1962, Meredith became the first black student at Ole Miss after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way. Campus riots followed; two people were killed and dozens injured. Mississippi officials initially tried to keep Meredith from enrolling, but President Kennedy ordered hundreds of federal authorities to escort him onto campus.
As of November, Ole Miss' Oxford and regional campuses had about 19,000 students, 76% of them white and 16% black. Nationwide, the respective figures in 2010 were 61% and 14%, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The first reported vandalism of the 7-year-old statue of Meredith has raised questions about whether the incident might be protected as free speech if deemed to be no more than a vague threat.
University Chancellor Dan Jones said the ideas expressed by the vandals had no place at the university. But others have disagreed, saying the university should not necessarily punish free expression.