Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne will not prosecute UW-Madison student Denzel McDonald on charges related to spray-painting anti-racist graffiti on university buildings.
The prospect of criminal charges against the 21-year-old fueled a protest last month by hundreds of students who occupied a campus library and blocked traffic on University Avenue.
Ozanne said Tuesday he has referred McDonald’s case to the Community Restorative Court, a year-old pilot diversion program in south Madison that focuses on restitution and repair of harm.
Successful completion of the restorative justice program would mean no prosecution and no entry of the case in the state’s online court system records, Ozanne said.
“It’s probably the best outcome a defendant could get,” he said. The option requires an offender to take responsibility and be held accountable, “in a way that does not give them a hurdle to get over the rest of their lives.”
UW-Madison Police recommended McDonald be charged with 11 criminal counts for graffiti and one count of disorderly conduct for threatening a bystander. They valued damage to university buildings at $4,000.
Police arrested McDonald April 14 outside the Humanities Building after making contact with him in a classroom, causing an uproar on campus by students and faculty. The protest on May 21 was calculated to disrupt learning for other students in the same way organizers said McDonald’s ability to learn was disrupted by police.
The decision not to prosecute the case was solely his, Ozanne said, but he conferred with campus police and said Tuesday he believed they were not opposed to diversion of the case.
“When I and a deputy met with McDonald and his attorney, it was clear he understood the seriousness of his behavior and that although he was trying to exercise his First Amendment rights, the way he went about it affected the impact of his message,” Ozanne said.
“I think a majority of people in our community want someone to accept responsibility and to do something to create positive change in an individual so hopefully we will not see the same activity again,” he said.
Ozanne said he was aware that McDonald had pled guilty a year ago to a UW-Madison police citation for graffiti. A growing body of evidence in brain science indicates that it just takes some people longer to mature and become able to control their impulses, he said.
Ozanne said he was not persuaded in his decision by the groundswell of opposition to charges against McDonald.
“I make a lot of decisions, some are popular and some are not. I look at the evidence and make a determination on what is best,” he said.
Common outcomes of a restorative justice model include taking responsibility, making restitution and apology to those who have been harmed, Ozanne said.
His referral to the community court does not mean the case is accepted. If the court should reject the case, or McDonald not complete the program requirements, the case could come back to him for a charging decision, Ozanne said.