A Cook County judge Thursday handed an eight-year prison sentence and a lesson in black history to a man who pleaded guilty to hate crime charges for tormenting a white former classmate in a 2017 online video that raised a national outcry.
Jordan Hill, 20, stood before Judge William Hooks and entered a guilty plea to hate crime and kidnapping charges in a case that made Hill and his three co-defendants the subject of nationwide scorn in the weeks before Donald Trump was inaugurated president.
Hill, then 18, was a friend and alternative school classmate of the victim, a white teenager who suffers from schizophrenia. One of Hill’s co-defendants used a cellphone to livestream video on Facebook as Hill and co-defendant Tesfaye Cooper taunted the teen in a Chicago apartment and cutting his clothing and gashing his head with a knife.
After announcing the sentence, Hooks directed Hill to look at paintings and photographs of civil rights leaders hanging on the walls of his courtrooms, and shook his head as Hill was unable to identify portraits of Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, among others.
“A lot of things you think you know, you don’t know,” Hooks told the defendant. “Every time you take an act like this . . . terrible act on this young man who could not defend himself, you spit on the graves of all of the people on these walls.”
President Barack Obama, then in the final weeks of his presidency, condemned the video — which was then being played constantly on the news — as “despicable.” Conservative corners of the internet became inflamed by rumors — false ones — that the participants were affiliated with Black Lives Matters.
Thursday, Hooks seemed by turns to be revolted by what Hill did on the video, and by the 20-year-old’s lack of any political or historical context for his actions.
Hill, who was friends with the victim before the January 2017 ordeal, is the third of four co-defendants to be sentenced in the case, and his prison term is by far the largest handed out by the judge.
Hill in March had turned down a plea deal, which would have seen him sentenced to eight years in prison on the two counts — he was initially charged with more than 50 counts– and appeared to be girding for trial. Anthony Burch, his attorney, said outside the courtroom that he could not explain his client’s change of heart.
The Facebook video, showing the terrified victim cowering as he was hit and taunted, was viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube and other outlets during the racially tense months after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Hill and Cooper at one point ordered the teen to say “I love black people,” and “F–k Donald Trump,” and the story took on a life of its own on conservative media websites.
At a hearing last month, Burch had appeared ready to make a case at trial that there was no racial hatred at work, nor any kidnapping involved, despite what many saw on the video. Hill grew up in the Chicago suburbs and became close with his future victim, with the pair having sleepovers and other marks of teenage friendship, Burch said. Hill still considers him a friend.
“This was not a hate crime, this was not political,” Burch said outside the courtroom. “(The victim) didn’t run to police. I believe Jordan still considers him a friend. There was never anything racist in this for him.”
The victim and his family have attended several hearings in the case, but were unable to attend Thursday’s hearing, Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier said. The victim and his family were satisfied with the eight-year sentence, Lanier said.
At Tanishia Covington’s sentencing hearing in April, Hooks had ordered Covington to directly address the teen, who replied to her tearful apology by whispering “It’s all right.”
But when questioned by police, the victim initially said he had been attacked by strangers, according to a motion filed by Brittany Covington’s lawyer. The teen and his family also collected some $185,000 from an online GoFundMe campaign, the filing states.
Hill faced a sentence for up to 30 years in prison on the most serious of those counts, aggravated kidnapping. He had no prior convictions.
Two of his co-defendants, sisters Brittany and Tanishia Covington, had previously agreed to plea deals, with Brittany receiving a probation-only sentence, and Tanishia, a three-year prison term. A lawyer for Cooper said Thursday that he was considering a plea deal.