(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)
Dionte Hall was so soft-spoken on the stand that the court reporter had to ask him several times to speak up.
He swiveled a little in his chair, he pulled at his chin and he lowered his eyes as he answered the prosecutor's questions.
But when the prosecutor asked Hall if he thought what happened to him Jan. 14 was funny, the 15-year-old looked him in the eye and answered firmly: "No, sir."
Prosecutors say what happened to Hall that day was, in fact, a crime. As Hall sat in a Wendy's restaurant in Largo with teammates from his high school basketball team, a 19-year-old boy placed a hangman's noose around his neck.
Prosecutors charged the teen, Louis J. Giannola IV, with felony battery, saying the act was a hate crime because it was fueled by prejudice. A person can be charged with battery if they even touch someone against their will.
Testimony in Giannola's trial began Wednesday.
Giannola contends he did not put the noose around Hall's neck out of hate, but because another teen, whose own father is black, bet him $10.
"What he did was wrong, but it was not a crime," his attorney, Sami Thalji, told jurors in opening statements, later adding: "Sometimes things are intended to be jokes and they're not funny."
But prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser told the jury that calling the act a joke "would be an insult to your common sense."
"Jokes have punch lines. The punch line was hatred," he added. "It was prejudice. This is not a joke. It's a crime. And he's guilty."
If convicted of the third-degree felony, Giannola faces a maximum of five years in prison.
Before the trial began Wednesday, prosecutors offered Giannola a plea deal in which he would have served six months in jail followed by four years of probation. A judgment of guilty would have been withheld, though Giannola would have had to apologize in court for his actions.
The plea deal was actually suggested by Hall and his parents, and was offered so everyone could avoid the rigors of a trial, prosecutor Joe Bulone said.
"If we go to trial and he's convicted, it's a whole new ballgame," Bulone said.
But after talking it over with his mother, Giannola decided not to take the offer. Thalji said Giannola, who has never before been in trouble with the law, was scared off by the time in jail.
"It was kind of a big pill to swallow," Thalji said. "He told me he just can't agree to that at this time."
The incident occurred Jan. 14 after classes let out at Largo High School. Hall and two teammates, who were white, went to Wendy's to hang out until basketball practice started. In the parking lot, they passed a group of other teens.
One of the teens had a rope he had taken from his car. The 20-foot rope was tied into a hangman's noose.
One member of that group was holding the rope as Hall and his friends walked by. He said: "You want to see what I can do with this rope?"
According to prosecutors, Giannola was in that group and made racist comments in the parking lot.
But Thalji said Giannola, who at the time lived in Zephyrhills, was making "redneck" jokes as well as jokes about blacks in order to fit in with a couple of teens who were using racially insensitive words, Thalji said.
"Making jokes is not a crime," he told jurors.
Prosecutors said one of the teens in the group _ a girl whose father is black and mother is white _ offered Giannola $10 to go into the restaurant and put the noose around Hall's neck.
Giannola agreed to do it. When he approached Hall, he said something to the effect of: "I'm getting paid $10 to do this."
He then placed the noose around Hall's neck.
"I felt the rope touching my shoulders," said Hall, the first witness to take the stand Wednesday. "I picked it up and threw it off.
"I didn't know what to think," he added. "I was angry."
Giannola, who is of Puerto Rican-Italian heritage, then left the restaurant with the noose. Hall's friends said they heard someone yell "I hate all n------," though Giannola denies saying that. The girl who offered him the $10 paid up.
Hall and his friends reported what happened to their basketball coach, who got police involved. Giannola admitted to police that he placed the rope on Hall's shoulders.
Two teens _ the boy who got the rope and the girl who offered the bet _ also were charged with being principles to the hate crime. Both pleaded guilty in juvenile court and received probation, Bulone said.
To prove it was a hate crime, prosecutors need to prove Giannola targeted Hall because he was black. But Thalji said Giannola, who has claimed he is not racist, was only carrying out the bet.
"Louis Giannola did not select Dionte Hall," Thalji told jurors. "Somebody else selected Dionte Hall."
Both of the other teens charged could be called to testify. Thalji told jurors Giannola also will take the stand. Testimony is expected to end today.
The attorneys spent much of Wednesday picking a jury and settled on a panel of three men and three women. All are white. Only two people in the pool of 30 potential jurors were black.
Since the incident, Hall has received awards from Largo city officials for handling the incident with grace.
Giannola, who said he has received threats since his arrest, has moved away from the area.