But there's a larger question here, one that transcends conspiracy theories, media bashing and the dispute over whether somebody called somebody else a nigger: Why are three teenagers locked away in jail for such offenses? "A fight! A fight!" rails Newport News minister Marcellus Harris. "They were given long prison sentences because they got in a fight in a bowling alley." Iverson's attorney, James Ellenson, is even blunter. "These white guys got their butts kicked in a fight," he says, "and, hey, somebody had to put those black kids in their place, make an example out of them."
That somebody was Overton, who SWIS claims has been disproportionately tough on black defendants. Overton handed down a sentence that was on a par with those frequently given to rapists and murderers. In denying an appeal bond, Overton said that Iverson "would be a risk" of not returning to court—a dubious assertion given Iverson's close ties to the community, his clean record and his desire to stay in school and play the sports that most likely will make him rich. In Virginia, all but the most violent criminals are routinely granted appeal bonds, and prosecutor Killilea says her office was ready to recommend a $15,000 bond. The only catch was, Overton didn't bother to hear her recommendation. Then, when the outcry arose, he went on vacation.
Overton isn't the only judge whose rulings can be questioned. Before Iverson entered Overton's court, his probation officer had strongly urged that the then 17-year-old be tried as a juvenile. Such a recommendation is almost uniformly followed, but this time, juvenile court judge Louis Lerner ordered the case to circuit court after a preliminary hearing.
Even many of Iverson's toughest critics were stunned by some of the turns the case has taken. Spencer, for example, thinks Iverson should have been allowed to go off to Maine Central Institute, a prep school that specializes in helping athletes with academic deficiencies.
Largely lost in the publicity shuffle are Simmons and Wynn, who now spend their days in the dreary Hampton City Jail. Their requests to join Iverson at the Farm were denied because, according to that facility's warden, having even Iverson causes enough commotion. And Iverson had requested the Farm first. "It's Iverson-this, Iverson-that," complains Wynn. "It's not really fair because nobody ever talks about us, but that's not Chuck's fault."
Meanwhile, in the outside world, the shouting continues. Alleging that she has suffered severe amnesia and permanent scarring, Steele has filed a $200,000 lawsuit against Iverson; according to Virginia law, Iverson's future earnings could be attached for the next 20 years. ("After all," Steele says, "I'm a victim, not Allen Iverson.") Circle Lanes has changed its name, and its owner says business is off. Several college basketball recruiters have backed away from Iverson, although a Virginia assistant coach has kept in touch and a recent visitors' log at City Farm was signed by George Washington coach Mike Jarvis. "I'm sure some will stay away," Iverson says. "But it'll work out. This has given me time to think about what I need to do to succeed in the world."
There are fleeting signs of hope. A circuit court in Richmond is considering Iverson's appeal, and, at worst, Iverson, Simmons and Wynn probably will be paroled by next July. A group of black ministers is meeting with the Hampton Chamber of Commerce to try to defuse the situation, and a threat to pull black kids out of school in protest is waning. On a more visceral note, there is the story of the black woman who, immediately after the melee, nursed Steele until medics arrived. Eschewing self-promotion, the woman has declined to come forward. To her, at least, compassion was color-blind.