White Mass. teen accused of trying to drown Black boy is charged with attempted murder — but not a hate crime. Why?

The alleged victim told investigators that another teen called him "George Floyd" and laughed while the suspect tried to drown him.

John Sheeran, wearing a coat and tie, walks past reporters and photographers as he arrives for a court appearance.
John Sheeran arrives for a court appearance in Chatham, Mass. (Via Boston 25 video)

A 14-year-old white boy indicted last month on a charge of attempted murder of a Black teen that he is accused of luring to a pond, throwing rocks at and attempting to drown was released from jail this week to the custody of his father after a court appearance.

John Sheeran is also facing a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon over the July 19 incident at Goose Pond in Chatham, Mass., in which police say Sheeran dunked the victim underwater several times, knowing the Black teen could not swim, and called him racial slurs as another friend laughed and called the teen “George Floyd.”

The 15-year-old victim told police that Sheeran and the other boy also threw rocks at him repeatedly, and the attack stopped only after another youth on the beach went into the water to intervene, according to officials. Other teens nearby told police they witnessed the incident. It is not clear whether the second teen, who is also white, will face charges.

Goose Pond in Chatham.
Goose Pond in Chatham. (Via Boston 25 video)

Sheeran’s attorney, Kevin Reddington, told the Boston Globe that the charges against his client are “over the top” and downplayed the teen’s actions, equating them to “horseplaying” among kids.

“They were in the water horseplaying and it got out of control, clearly,” Reddington said. “I understand the basis of the judge’s decision, and we are appealing to the Superior Court and hoping to get him back in school.”

The allegations seem to fit the definition of a hate crime, one expert said. But thus far, no such charges have been filed against Sheeran.

Why no hate crime charges?

Margaret Drew, an associate professor at UMass Law School, says that though hate crime charges can be added later, she questions why they were not initially applied to the case given its severity.

Massachusetts law defines a hate crime as “any criminal act coupled with overt actions motivated by bigotry and bias,” including acts motivated by racial, religious, ethnic or sexual orientation prejudice, among other things. A hate crime conviction carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“We would need to know whether the assistant district attorney, who was before the grand jury, requested hate crimes,” Drew told Yahoo News, noting a recent precedent set in a case in Salem, Mass., in which a group of teens was charged with civil rights violations after initially facing other charges for allegedly assaulting another group based on their presumed sexual orientation in April. “I noticed that [in] the case in Salem, which was a gender-identity-based incident, hate crimes were added to the charges [later].”

Sheeran is being tried as a youthful offender, according to NBC Boston, a designation that gives state prosecutors discretion for seeking an adult sentence for children between 14 and 17 years old who are accused of serious offenses, including a charge that involves the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm. Unlike juvenile hearings, the proceedings under this statute are open to the public.

Prosecutors on Monday said that just hours after the initial near-drowning incident, Sheeran got into a fight with a teen of Asian descent, punching him in the face and calling him slurs. Sheeran should remain in jail, prosecutors argued, calling him a danger to the community.

“He’s a violent child and we’ve heard no mitigating factors,” Assistant District Attorney Eileen Moriarty said in court. “This violence is unfortunately targeted towards children of other races, children that don’t look like him.”

Drew, the UMass professor, took aim at Reddington’s characterization of his client Sheeran’s actions, calling it dangerous.

“These were kids that had the intention of violating the body of a Black boy and nearly drowning him,” she said. “So this is not horsing around, this is not rolling around on the lawn wrestling. And the danger to me is that when the seriousness of these acts is minimized, that does nothing but empower those who lean towards violence. If there’s no boundaries drawn immediately, this is just going to get worse.”

Reddington did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

A poster on the fence at the scene of a hate crime reads: Injustice Anywhere is Threat to Justice Everywhere: Black Lives Matter.
A poster left at the scene of a hate crime in June 2021 in Winthrop, Mass. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Overall, hate crimes in Massachusetts are on the rise in recent years — jumping 33% in 2021 from the previous year, according to a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League. The findings published in the “Hate in the Bay State” report revealed that these crimes have been driven mostly by white supremacist propaganda, antisemitism and harassment of the LGBTQ community. Massachusetts, in particular, saw the nation’s second-highest number of white supremacist propaganda incidents in 2022.

“Extremists have targeted Massachusetts with the intention to instill fear and intimidation through their stunts, propaganda and increasingly aggressive demonstrations,” Peggy Shukur, deputy regional director of ADL New England, said in a statement.

‘Racism controls so much of what we do’

Many critics have highlighted the role a disjointed justice system plays in incidents like this, which Black Americans have historically experienced in the U.S., particularly for more heinous crimes like murder.

People who kill Black people, for instance, are less likely to face the death penalty than those who kill white people, a 2020 report from the Death Penalty Information Center found. The report noted that since the death penalty resumed in 1977, 295 Black defendants had been executed for killing a white victim but only 21 white defendants had been executed for killing a Black victim, even though Black people are disproportionately the victims of crime. The findings draw a direct line from how lynchings of the slavery era have evolved into discrimination in the current criminal justice system.

“As a country, we don’t acknowledge the depth of racism and how racism controls so much of what we do and what we think, whether it’s conscious or not,” Drew said. “Race plays into almost everything that happens in this country.”