Last Updated:July 24 @ 07:59 am

Why joining a riot can be a bad decision

By Michael Rubinkam

(AP) - Stints in jail. Hefty fines and restitution. Clouded futures. The consequences of their bad behavior have been steep for the Penn State students who took to the streets and rioted in the chaotic aftermath of Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno's firing last November.

Perhaps none have learned a harder lesson than Justin Strine, a young man from central Pennsylvania whose planned career as an Army officer is over before it began - the casualty of his own split-second decision to put his hands on a news van, and a judicial system that considered him as guilty as classmates who did far worse that dark night in State College.

As the fall semester gets under way Monday, Strine has returned to campus, along with 15 other students found to have taken part in a nationally televised riot that caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage and embarrassed Penn State.

As he resumes his studies, nothing's the same for the 21-year-old from Hummelstown. He spent part of his summer in jail. Far worse: He's been kicked out of ROTC, his dream of carrying on his family's proud military tradition now out of reach.

"I'm losing everything I worked my entire life for," Strine said.

Strine's father, a career soldier, questions whether that's a just result.

"I had to stand by and watch my son plead guilty to something he didn't do," said Jim Strine.

Penn State sanctioned 32 students for their involvement in the riot, suspending 10 of them from one to three semesters and giving probation to the rest, university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said. Dozens of students were criminally charged, as well, and the guilty pleas have piled up over the last several months.

An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people poured into downtown State College on Nov. 9 after the Penn State board of trustees abruptly and unexpectedly fired Paterno - the beloved football coach who led Penn State for nearly 46 seasons - and removed President Graham Spanier over the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.

What began as a peaceful protest of Paterno's unceremonious dismissal quickly turned ugly as a "riotous mob," as State College police would later call it, threw bottles and rocks, damaged cars, and tore down light posts and street signs.

Strine was in his off-campus apartment when he learned of Paterno's firing. He and a few friends decided to head downtown.

It was a rare misstep in what had been a slow, steady climb toward the officer ranks.

Strine's father is a helicopter pilot and instructor whose 28-year career has taken him to Iraq and Afghanistan. His grandfather is a retired Air Force flight surgeon. His brother and sister, aunt and uncle, cousins - all serve or have served. So it wasn't a surprise when Strine began plotting his own military career as an adolescent, reading the autobiographies of famed Army officers like Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell.

At Penn State, Strine threw himself into ROTC as well as his studies, making the dean's list and spending the summer at Fort Benning, Ga., learning to jump out of airplanes. His goal: to be a pilot like his father.

"He was a good cadet," Jim Strine said.

A good cadet who made a bad decision the night of Nov. 9.

Strine had driven himself and a couple friends to the State College commercial district, where they joined thousands of other protesters. At one point Strine and his friend, Christina Assainte, found themselves in a large crowd moving toward a WTAJ-TV news van, where vandals were pelting it with rocks.

To the rippling chants of "Flip it! Flip it!" two young men approached the side of the van, motioning others to join them, a video recording shows. That set off a frenzied rush toward the van, and within seconds a large group started to push.

A second wave of spectators then pressed toward the front of the van, perhaps to get a better view. Strine and Assainte were in the front of that group.

With the vehicle already on two wheels and going over, Strine placed his palms on the hood. Four seconds later, the van was on its side. But that's all it took for police and prosecutors to charge him with felony counts of riot and criminal mischief - the same charges filed against students who did the actual pushing.

"I always felt I was on a good path, and all the sudden I'm being made into a criminal. It was shocking to me they wouldn't even hear me out and let me explain that yes, I was there and shouldn't have been, but I wasn't this person they are making me out to be," Strine said. "No one ever looked at me as an individual. They looked at me as 5,000 Penn State rioters."

Terrified of being branded a felon, Strine agreed to plead guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and criminal mischief. He served 30 days in jail - getting out Aug. 4 - and will either be on parole or probation until 2015.

The consequences didn't end there. Penn State suspended Strine for a semester, and he was booted from ROTC and will have to repay every dime of his scholarship money, a total of $34,000. He also owes $8,500 in court costs, fines and restitution.

Strine said he knows he never should have left his apartment that night, never should have been in the vicinity of the van, never should have laid a finger on its hood.

"The van was already going over. It was so crazy, it was mayhem, and in that moment you stop thinking," Strine said. "I know I wasn't completely blameless. I was there, I touched the van and that was wrong. That's why I was happy to do community service for Penn State. But the criminal justice system went overboard."

His father said he's not seeking to minimize or excuse Justin's involvement, but contended the district attorney's office was far too aggressive - and his son's punishment far too severe.

"He owns something in this," Jim Strine said. "He just doesn't own what he's got."

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller did not return multiple calls and emails seeking information about her office's handling of Strine's case or the other riot cases.

Messages left with State College police Chief Tom King were not returned.

Lt. Col. Ken Weiland, commander of Penn State's Army ROTC program, declined to comment Monday on Strine's removal from the program but cited military regulations that list a multitude of reasons why a cadet could be kicked out.

Powers, the Penn State spokeswoman, said any student who goes through the university disciplinary process can contest the charges or sanctions.

"Justin accepted responsibility and the sanctions in the disciplinary conference, and did not contest them through either avenue that was afforded to him," she said, adding that Penn State carefully assessed each student's culpability, the impact of the crime on the community, and other factors before imposing punishment.

Strine said he didn't contest the charges because he wouldn't have been permitted an attorney, and his testimony before the school could have been used against him in the criminal courts. He didn't challenge the sanctions because Penn State warned him that if he did, he could wind up being penalized more severely. And he said he was never told that a suspension would cost him his spot in ROTC.

Assainte, who was with Strine during the riot, said he had no criminal intent that night. She said he got a raw deal.

"I remember him saying, `All I wanted to do was serve my country, and now I can't because of one little mistake that was caught on tape.' One lapse of judgment and he gets all this thrown at him? I felt so awful," she said. "I just think what happened was really, really unfair."

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13 Comments

  1. fallschComment by fallsch
    August 27, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    Sorry young man. You admit you should not have been there. Nothing good could come of putting yourself in an emotionally charged crowd and nothing did.

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    Rating: 4.8/5 (18 votes cast)
  2. genesalComment by genesal
    August 27, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    He’s apparently, not Officer material as it turns out. It only takes ‘one little mistake’ to get those under you killed. Lapse of judgment is not in an Officers job description. At least he had a chance to learn a lesson as a young person and maybe can try again as an adult.

    I’ve been on the other side of 3 riots and there’s nothing trivial about them and personally I think they’re much too lenient and easy on rioters.

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    Rating: 4.8/5 (29 votes cast)
  3. iam3Comment by iam3
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    So, he willingly went to a protest march in favor of a coach who knowlingly condoned pedophelia, a coach that put football in front of young children? Is he saying he placed his hands on the hood by accident.

    Not only is this little twit not officer material, it will probably be some time before he should be in ANY leadership position. When in a position of leadership, military or otherwise, people under your guidance rely on your judgement.

    Until he mans up, admits he was foolish to be in the front line yet complains, and takes responsibility, he needs a whole bunch of guidance.

    Let this be a lesson, particulary to students in the santitized “I have every right but no responsibility” environment of the American campus. There are consequences!

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    Rating: 4.3/5 (17 votes cast)
    • genesalComment by genesal
      August 27, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

      Put beautifully!

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      Rating: 4.3/5 (12 votes cast)
    • catmanComment by catman
      August 28, 2012 @ 9:59 am

      If he were truly officer material, he would have been trying to stop the crowds from overturning the van, and it would have been on video.

      He is a weak follower and has no business in a leadership role – he failed an important life test, and paid the price.

      When my son was 7, I explained to him the consequences of being in the company of troubled people – about how he could go to jail for the misdeeds of people he didn’t even know… and he learned it well.

      Where was this boys father when he was growing up – this is one of the basic survival tools in a child’s tool kit for living.

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      Rating: 3.3/5 (4 votes cast)
  4. Bill from MiddletownComment by Bill from Middletown
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

    Knowing what he had to lose, why did Strine plead guilty if he was not so?

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  5. dbamichaelComment by dbamichael
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    This guy will qualify perfectly as a General in Obamas new military.

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    Rating: 4.0/5 (12 votes cast)
    • genesalComment by genesal
      August 27, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

      Maybe Biden needs a lieutenant?

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      Rating: 4.0/5 (8 votes cast)
  6. middlegroundComment by middleground
    August 27, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

    I had my car parked in front of the ROTC building when a crowd moved in to occupy the building in protest to Kent State. I asked several students what was going on and one replied: “oh about 30 hardcore are occupying the building.” There were about 500 students lounging about because it was a warm night and this was exciting. However, as the university president was talking to the leader, the other administrator heard a couple of the hardcore suggesting they wanted to burn down the building. When they mentioned this to the leaders of the group, they agreed to move the protest to another building, but whenever you join a protest group of any kind, you are basically exposing your future to whatever the extremists in the group want to do. A responsible university president should include this in his freshman orientation because a felony conviction will close a lot of opportunities to someone like this, including professional schools.

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    Rating: 4.7/5 (15 votes cast)
  7. slickzipComment by slickzip
    August 27, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

    If you can’t do the time , don’t do the crime !

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    Rating: 4.3/5 (10 votes cast)
  8. stopspendingComment by stopspending
    August 27, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

    Anybody remember the Kent State protests?? Several lost their lives. Never know what will happen when you are part of a group of uncontrolled rioters, especially young people and protesting the police who have guns

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    Rating: 4.4/5 (7 votes cast)
  9. hank1931Comment by hank1931
    August 27, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

    Justice isn’t always just. Looking at our legal/justice system sometimes scares me. Judges, lawyers, witnesses,
    juries, it’s never 100% right. Sometimes criminals get away with murder, sometimes innocent people go to prison.

    The only way out is to keep a low profile, stay out of situations that can go wrong, and have lady luck on your side.
    We all make bad decisions, and some of us get away with it and learn from it and some of us have to learn the hard way.

    I’ve been lucky a couple of times and now I run away from
    anything, any place I shouldn’t be in. I do what I think is right, but always with commonsense.

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    Rating: 3.5/5 (6 votes cast)
  10. mittenmanComment by mittenman
    August 28, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    All he HAD to do was Nothing. But he didn’t, did he?
    I’d feel sorry for him but alas, I cannot. You cannot tell me his own awareness of his presence there was not screaming at him to just LEAVE…and now {noting I see nothing to chortle about here} it truly “…***** to be Him…..”
    With all his Military influences and seeming knowledge of The System, he seems to be ‘somewhat clueless’.

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    Rating: 3.0/5 (2 votes cast)

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