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Noose incident inspires advocacy

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

After a 19-year-old put a hangman's noose around his neck on a $10 bet, Dionte Hall started thinking about the black man who was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas, and about the lynchings he had seen dramatized in the movie Roots.

Hall, 14, decided to do his own research on hate crimes. The black basketball player from Largo High School found that between 1995 and 2002, there were three times more hate crimes against blacks than whites nationally.

Shocked, he wrote to President Bush.

"After what happened that day, I've walked around with a lot more pride, not only for myself but for the color of my skin," he wrote. "I'm still hurting on the inside, but I'm just trying to turn something so negative into a positive."

More than a week has passed since the noose incident. It began when a group of teens hanging out in a Wendy's parking lot bragged about being racist. One teen tied a 20-foot rope into a noose. A girl dared Louis John Giannola, 19, for $10 to put the rope around Dionte's neck, police said. Giannola did, police said, and uttered a racial slur before leaving the restaurant.

Now, hoping to become advocates for change, Hall and his parents are calling for legislation that would hold people criminally responsible for teaching children the beliefs that lead to racist acts of violence or other hate crimes.

If a defendant in a hate crime case claims he or she should get leniency because the conduct was the result of attitudes instilled in them as a child, the parents _ or others _ should be charged as conspirators, said the Halls' attorney, Grady C. Irvin Jr.

"Anyone who advocates violent conduct and has that violent conduct carried out by a child ought to be held accountable," Irvin said Thursday at a news conference at his St. Petersburg office. "It's hard to believe this kid became that way overnight."

Irvin is writing letters to President Bush, Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. and Florida lawmakers, asking that they propose such legislation.

Bruce Jacob, dean emeritus and law professor at Stetson University College of Law, said he respects Irvin's viewpoint but wonders whether such a statute might set a dangerous precedent.

"Each parent ought to be free to raise his kid as he sees fit," he said. "I think it's dangerous to intrude into a family situation. . . . Who's to decide what should be taught and what shouldn't be taught? I hate to be the person to decide."

Giannola's mother, Dee Giannola of Zephyrhills, has said her son likes to play jokes and probably made a bad decision that day. She said Giannola, who recently moved to Largo to live with Filipino friends, is half Italian and half Puerto Rican.

Giannola's attorney, Gregory Williams, declined to comment Thursday. Giannola, who is charged with a felony battery hate crime, was released on bail from Pinellas County Jail on Sunday. He could not be reached late Thursday.

The girl who made the bet was charged with aiding a hate crime, while the boy with the rope was charged with a felony aiding to a hate crime.

The Hall family urged the State Attorney's Office to aggressively prosecute the teens involved.

"My family is scarred for life," said Dionte's mother, Cheryl Hall of Clearwater. "I haven't really gotten a good night's sleep since it happened."

Christopher Hall, Dionte's father, said his son had never heard anyone say a racial slur to him before Jan. 14. Dionte will start seeing a therapist and a religious counselor soon.

"I just hope and pray he stays strong," Christopher Hall said.

Dionte's classmates have rallied around him, coming up to him at school and giving him hugs.

"I didn't know as many people cared for me as they did," said Dionte.