Man facing sentence to college gets support

Robert Koch

Sigma Lambda Beta members have accepted a new charge unlike any before.
The University’s Latino-based, multicultural fraternity is introducing a 19-year-old former gang member from western Minnesota to college and city life.
On April 11, a judge ordered former Latin Kings gang member Angel Hernandez to attend college instead of returning to prison. Hernandez had spent 10 months out of his initial 30-month sentence in a Kandiyohi County jail for making terroristic threats to a Willmar store manager.
In an unusual ruling, District Court Judge Donald Spilseth said it was in the best interest of the community. And Sigma fraternity members, after initial reservations, are now enthusiastically involved in the process.
“Most of us were kind of skeptical about it until we actually had a chance to meet him,” said Jontue Austin, a biological sciences junior and Sigma vice president. “He’s an entirely different character than the one presented by the accounts given by the prosecutor.”
In a memorandum accompanying the sentencing order, Spilseth reasoned the community will benefit more by sending Hernandez to college at his own expense than to prison at taxpayers’ expense.
“The defendant must make arrangements and pursue, or make meaningful progress in pursuing, a course of education at the University of Minnesota, or any other institution offering post-secondary education,” Spilseth said.
Spilseth also stipulated Hernandez must live in and associate with a supportive organization, choosing Sigma Lambda Beta.
Hernandez, described as somewhat shy, has declined interviews. But his newfound Sigma friends have expressed their support.
Austin is one of Hernandez’s seven new roommates. He met Hernandez through attorney Manuel Guerrero and Tim Roche, a Baltimore consultant involved with alternative sentencing.
Austin describes Hernandez as a smart individual whose previous calls for help to escape gang life and a bad family situation had gone unheeded.
Several fraternity members drove to Willmar over spring break to speak on Hernandez’s behalf. Together, with the testimony by Guerrero, they bolstered Hernandez’s chances for a new beginning.
In addition to attending college, Hernandez must also mediate face-to-face with his victims and remain on probation for five years. Funding his own education is yet another aspect of Spilseth’s ruling.
But Austin said Hernandez plans to work during the summer and begin General College in the fall. For now, he has completed most of his admission paperwork and awaits his ACT test results, Austin added.
Wayne Sigler, director at the Office of Admissions, could not comment on Hernandez’s application specifically, since such records are confidential. But he said all applicants are treated fairly by the same policies, including high school rank and test scores.
The University does not automatically reject applicants because of a criminal background, Sigler said.
“At the same time, we reserve the right to make an overall assessment of an application and take the factors into account which reflect the best interests of the student and of the University,” Sigler said.
Pending acceptance and enrollment, Hernandez will be eligible to join Sigma Lambda Beta. Austin said he hopes that will be the case.
“This is truly saving somebody’s life,” Austin said. “That’s why I’m so excited about it.”

Robert Koch welcomes comments at [email protected]