While he doesn't admit guilt, the 19-year-old accused of a hate crime extends an apology to the victim and his family.
By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
Published May 25, 2004
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
John Louis Giannola, 19, sits in the Tampa office of his attorney Sami Thalji on Monday.
The man charged with a hate crime after police say he dropped a noose around the neck of a black teenager in Largo is stepping forward with an apology.
John Louis Giannola on Monday said he could not talk about the specifics of the Jan. 14 incident, and he is not admitting any guilt. Still, gripping his mother's hand and sitting in the Tampa office of his attorney, he said he was "very emotional" about the issue, which has brought trespassers and phone threats to his mother's former Zephyrhills household.
"It's like a big, gaping hole," said a crestfallen Giannola, 19. "It hurts. It's scary."
Giannola, who is of Puerto Rican-Italian heritage, is charged with felony battery hate crime. Police say he targeted 14-year-old Dionte Hall, a Largo High School student who was eating after school at a nearby Wendy's restaurant.
Giannola's attorney, Sami Thalji, said his client is sorry that Dionte was victimized.
"Louis and the entire Giannola family want to express their deepest apologies to the Hall family and to Dionte. ... Nobody should have to be pulled into a situation like this," Thalji said. "They respect the Hall family very much and have been humbled by this experience."
Thalji said he hopes that both families can be satisfied during the legal process.
Two other youths, a boy and a girl, were involved in the case, but police did not release their names because they were minors.
Here's what police said happened: The incident started when an unidentified Largo High School girl, allegedly bet Giannola $10 to put the noose around a black student's neck. Prior to that, the unidentified boy tied the noose with a rope in his trunk.
The students lobbed racial epithets at Hall, who was walking into the restaurant with several basketball teammates.
Hall reacted calmly and left the scene to tell his basketball coach what happened. Later that week, the girl, who is biracial, was charged with aiding a hate crime, a misdemeanor. The boy with the rope, who is white, was arrested on a felony charge of aiding a hate crime. His charge was a felony because of a prior arrest record.
The young people told police it was all a joke.
Giannola was placed in jail, but was released on bail soon after.
Giannola's attorney doesn't dispute that the noose incident occurred, but he does disagree with some details.
"We're most concerned with the accuracy of the alleged facts," said Thalji.
In a 45-minute interview, Giannola discussed moving from Los Angeles to Florida, wanting to become a pilot and his being uncomfortable with how he is portrayed in the news.
Giannola said his life has taken a stressful turn since mid January. He won't explain why he was in Largo that day, but says he hasn't been back since. And his family has since relocated to an unidentified location in Tampa Bay while Giannola left the area. He only returns for specific reasons such as Monday's pretrial court hearing.
Giannola's mother, Dee, moved her family because of the undue attention. Total strangers would call and say "nasty" things, she said. Slightly teary-eyed, she trembled during her son's interview.
If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.
But Giannola, wearing a crisply-pressed blue shirt and silver tie, said he's not the guy police make him out to be.
"I didn't grow up in Zephyrhills," he said.
"I grew up in L.A. and moved to Florida when I was 9."
By that time, Giannola was already learning to fly. He said he intends to attend a community college and then a four-year college for degrees in aviation science. He wants to be a commercial airline pilot.
Giannola describes himself as a Catholic who is intelligent, funny, energetic and well-liked. He once attended Zephyrhills High, but is now being homeschooled and has plans to graduate in two months.
He didn't finish at the public school because of "emotional issues" tied to the death of a close family member, he said.
During a pretrial hearing Monday, Thalji scheduled another hearing to give himself more time to conduct depositions and he asked Judge Timothy Peters if Giannola could be excused from the next pretrial hearing because he now lives out of town.
The judge said no to that last request.
Dionte Hall's parents were present at the hearing. Afterward, they said their son is doing fine and playing in a traveling basketball league over the summer. He's not bitter toward whites, they said.
"I think overall he has matured," Christopher Hall said. "He took what happened to him and has not used it as a negative."
But mostly, they're frustrated with Giannola and Thalji.
"I feel Giannola knows he's wrong," Hall said. "The other two (teens involved) stood up and admitted their guilt."
Giannola said he knows it might be hard for people to believe he is not racist.
"Everybody has already come up with their own opinions," Giannola said. "The way it's played out to be is not me."