With two weeks left until Jean M. Celestin is scheduled to receive his Penn State degree, black student leaders called on the university Friday not to prevent the graduation of the former wrestler convicted of sexual assault.
"It would be a terrible injustice to keep a student who has diligently worked toward a college degree from graduating and receiving the fruits of his labor," said Teaunte Wilson, vice president of the Penn State chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Celestin did not appear at Friday's press conference in the Paul Robeson Cultural Center. He wishes to remain silent, student leaders said, as he is currently appealing his conviction.
In a letter to the university last week, national non-profit Security On Campus, Inc., questioned Celestin's graduation, after Judge Tom Kistler sentenced him to six to 12 months in county prison.
The judge's decision would allow Celestin to finish his political science degree in December before his imprisonment.
Celestin has not faced university sanctions yet because the victim, who has since withdrawn from Penn State, requested that Penn State delay its Office of Judicial Affairs process until the court proceedings concluded.
Last week, after the victim contacted the university, Judicial Affairs reopened its case against Celestin.
"We'll follow U.S. law and university policy and move as swiftly as possible now that the waiting period that the victim requested is over," said university spokesman Bill Mahon.
He said the university's decision could be reached within the next two weeks -- before the December graduation ceremonies.
In October 1999, Celestin, 22, along with former teammate Nathan Parker, 21, was charged with sexually assaulting a female Penn State student. The charges included rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and indecent assault.
Celestin was convicted in October of sexual assault and cleared of all other charges while Parker was cleared of all of the charges brought against him.
At the sentencing, District Attorney Ray Gricar criticized the judge's ruling. The sentencing guidelines for Celestin's conviction recommend a three- to six-year detainment in state prison.
Gricar said he filed a motion for Kistler to modify Celestin's sentence in accordance with these guidelines and is waiting for the judge's response.
Kistler could not be reached for comment yesterday.
On Friday, student leaders at Penn State defended Kistler's sentence and supported Celestin's graduation.
David Davis, speaking on behalf of the Black Caucus, said: "It is our position that Judge Kistler's sentencing was fair based upon the incongruent circumstances of the three-day long trial."
The caucus hopes the university will respect Kistler's decision to allow Celestin to graduate, Davis said. He added that the caucus is concerned about Judicial Affairs' objectivity in the case.
"We fear that he will not be able to get an unbiased judicial affairs hearing due to the massive media attention that this case has already received," Davis said.
Wilson also supported the sentencing and said the Penn State NAACP and the National Panhellenic Council have written letters urging the university to allow Celestin's graduation.
Chris Thomas, chapter president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, maintained Celestin's innocence at the conference.
"Jean is no criminal, in fact he is the victim of an unjust so-called criminal justice system," Thomas said.
As for the university's judicial procedures, Assata Richards, graduate student and Black Caucus member, said Judicial Affairs needs to be reformed and questioned its ability to hold a fair hearing in Celestin's case.
"It's unacceptable for the university to have this sweeping reach," Richards said.
But Mahon said that in surveys, the majority of people who've been through the judicial affairs process have called it fair.
"It's a process that's well established," he said.
Richards also said the "contentious racial climate" contributed to the outcome of Celestin's case. Celestin and Parker are black. The victim is white.
"Do you really think a black male of color who is accused of raping a white female in Centre County can get a fair trial when a jury of his peers are all white except one female of color? That's a problem," Richards said.
But Gricar called it "nonsense" to refer to the case's outcome in racial terms. "The verdict is solidly based on the law and evidence and that's all -- nothing more than that."
In an e-mail Friday, the victim described why she feels Penn State should remove Celestin from campus.
She described her start at Penn State and how she "worked hard to attend a university (she) 'used' to look up to."
"After this happened, I had to leave because of the harassment and endless threats I received," the victim said. "So I only see it as being some small consolation to my loss that he does not receive that diploma."
She also criticized the Judicial Affairs process for subjecting her to another hearing.
"Penn State wants to victimize me again," she said. "They need to change their rules that if you assault another student and are convicted, you should be removed from campus indefinitely."