In a glimmer of hope for restorative justice, Judge Scott Suskauer of the 15th Judicial Circuit of Florida issued an unconventional penalty in the case of 20-year-old Alexander Jerich, who pled guilty to defacing a beloved LGBTQ+ pride street mural in South Florida last year. During a hearing last week, Judge Suskauer ordered him to write a 25-page essay about the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, in which a homicidally homophobic gunman killed 49 people at a gay club in Orlando. The essay will be due by Jerich’s final sentencing date in June.
Last year, Jerich admitted to vandalizing the “Pride Intersection” mural, a giant Pride flag painted across an intersection in Delray Beach, by using his pickup truck to draw 15-food skid marks over the artwork. Only three days later, after authorities traced Jerich’s license plate from cellphone footage, he turned himself in. But if Judge Suskauer was expecting a hostile or remorseless defendant, he found himself surprised.
“I was expecting someone who displays complete disrespect for their fellow citizens,” Suskauer said, as quoted in the Palm Beach Post. Instead, finding an opportunity for a teachable moment, Suskauer delayed final sentencing and asked Jerich to research the lives of all 49 victims of the nightclub shooting, the loved ones they left behind, and to offer his own views about why such crimes occur.
“I want your own brief summary of why people are so hateful and why people lash out against the gay community,” Suskauer said during the hearing. He also indicated that he wants Jerich to perform community service for an LGBTQ+ community organization — a suggestion that was met with some resistance from Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, which paid for the street mural along with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Hoch was pressing for a one-year jail sentence for Jerich and said his actions were “clearly a hate crime,” telling the judge that LGBTQ+ groups “don’t want the defendant anywhere near our organization or our missions.” He also asked that Jerich be banned for life from the Pride Intersection. In addition to defacing the artwork, Jerich was identified at a birthday rally for former President Donald J. Trump following the dedication ceremony for the mural that summer, at which other participants called for its destruction.
Apparently searching for restorative rather than punitive solutions, Judge Suskauer suggested Jerich may visit and clean the site weekly, accompanied by his father, as a reminder of his actions.
While these were not the outcomes that Hoch initially sought, he told reporters outside the courtroom that he was pleased to see the case being taken seriously and recognized the essay assignment as “a learning opportunity for the defendant.”
“I went in there prepared to be disappointed and I came out impressed,” Hoch said in an interview with the New York Times about the hearing. “It will be interesting to see what the ultimate punishment is.”
Jerich’s lawyer, Robert Pasch, has not replied to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.