Three New York college students pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of assault and fabricating claims of being the targets of a racially-motivated attack in January, authorities said.
Ariel Agudio, Asha Burwell and Alexis Briggs, all 20-year-old students at the State University of New York at Albany, were indicted Monday on charges of third-degree assault and falsely reporting an incident, the Albany County District Attorney said.
They pleaded not guilty to the charges Wednesday and were released on their own recognizance by the Albany County Court.
A tentative trial date was scheduled for September 26.
Agudio and Burwell were expelled from the university, and Briggs was suspended for two years, as part of the "student conduct process," a university spokesperson told BuzzFeed News Thursday.
"We are looking to seek appropriate justice in light of this action by the district attorney to use a grand jury as a tool to hide behind," Frederick Brewington, Burwell's lawyer, told BuzzFeed News, adding that he would address the charges in court motions.
William Little, a lawyer for Briggs, told BuzzFeed News, "We are disappointed in the manner in which this case has been handled by the District Attorney. Any rational person who views the video, and the actions of Alexis Briggs on the bus, will determine that she is not guilty and did nothing more than attempt to defuse an argument. We ask that the public keep an open mind and not rush to judgment."
A lawyers for Agudio did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News's requests for comment.
The charges stemmed from a January 30 incident when the three women alleged they were assaulted and called racial slurs by a group of white men and women on a public bus. Prosecutors said that the three women were actually the perpetrators and not the victims of the assault.
In a 911 call released by officials, Burwell claimed that the three women were "jumped on a bus for being black."
"These girls jumped on us and they calling us the n-word and hitting us and so were guys," Burwell reported. "The bus driver didn't do anything about it."
In a separate 911 call, Agudio called the incident a "racial crime." She alleged the group of people on the bus "were calling us niggers and all this stuff." She said that nobody called police "because we're black."
Agudio said that their hair was ripped out and "boys were hitting us." She told the 911 operator that "three black girls were jumped by like 20 white people."
"It was a racial crime and if its not dealt with I'm calling the news," Aguido told the 911 operator.
At one point during the call, she is heard saying that she had gotten a black eye. She is also heard saying, "I beat up a boy."
Burwell addressed the incident in a series of tweets on Jan. 30, alleging that she was beaten by fellow classmates "because of the color of my skin."
The women's allegations sparked public outcry and hundreds attended a #DefendBlackGirlsUAlbany rally in February organized by the National Congress of Black Women.
Hillary Clinton showed her support for the rally, tweeting, "There's no excuse for racism and violence on a college campus."
Court documents though appeared to show that the three women allegedly injured a 19-year-old female passenger in the bus by repeatedly striking her on the head.
The indictment alleged Mary Glisson was repeatedly struck on her head by the three women, causing swellings and and "substantial pain, including prolonged headaches."
Agudio was also accused of striking another passenger, Marissa Camacho, on the head, pulling her hair, and striking her sister, Gabrielle Camacho, on the head.
Agudio was also charged for repeatedly hitting Robert McCarthy, 19, on the head and face, according to the indictment.
The indictment said that the three women knowingly gave "false information" to the police in their 911 calls and in the days following the alleged incident.
According to statements the three women gave to university police, the confrontation began after a female passenger allegedly started singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" on the bus, court records obtained by the Times Union showed.
In a written statement to police, Briggs wrote, "Asha and I, minding our own business, eating our bacon, egg and cheeses are interrupted by a girl obnoxiously singing '99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall' at the top of her lungs."
Agudio said that the rest of the bus, except the three of them, sang along but stopped after a while. When the woman continued to sing, Burwell allegedly told her she would give her half of her sandwich to stop singing, but the woman laughed, according to Burwell's statement to police.
From the Times Union:
When Burwell turned around, she said, she "heard a girl say (expletive) and other things." Agudio, in her statement, said the singing woman called her and her two friends "rachet" as well as "other inaudible speech." Agudio said she asked the woman what she said, and the woman "continued with inaudible speech."
"My intent was to scare the girl into being quiet the rest of the ride when her friends apologized for her and told me to sit back down," Agudio wrote.
The three women's accounts then differed on how exactly the fight started. Agudio said she confronted a man after he called her a whale and saw Burwell fighting with others. Burwell said a girl started screaming at them and calling them "ignorant" while another girl began hitting her. Briggs told police that a woman said something disrespectful to her and she saw another woman hit Burwell, the Times Union reported.
"The only person we heard uttering racial epithets was one of the defendants," J. Frank Wiley, the chief of the University Police Department (UPD) said in a statement announcing the arrests of the three women in February.
Wiley said that the three women were arrested after evidence showed that "contrary to how the defendants originally portrayed things, these three individuals were not the victims of a crime. Rather, we allege that they are the perpetrators."
The women were arrested after a three-week investigation that included interviewing 35 passengers on the bus, and reviewing videotape from 12 security cameras on the bus, four cell phone videos by passengers, and the university's surveillance system.
Wiley said the evidence showed that no male struck the three women and that they were "actually the aggressors in the physical altercation." He said that the women "continued to assault" the female victim despite attempts by other passengers to stop them.
Investigators also said there was no evidence to support the women's allegations that they were targeted because of their race and were subjected to racial slurs.
"I especially want to point out that what happened on the bus was not a 'hate crime,'" Wiley said. "We spent a great deal of time carefully reviewing the audio recordings to determine whether any racial slurs were used. The only person we heard uttering racial epithets was one of the defendants. And it is important to note that no witness reported hearing any racial slurs directed at the defendants. And those witnesses were people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds."
The university said Thursday that Agudio and Burwell had been expelled and Briggs was given a two-year suspension as part of the "student conduct process."
In a note to students Thursday, the university's president, Robert Jones, said the women were found "accountable for violations of the Student Code of Conduct."
He said that the sanctions were determined by the Student Conduct Board which comprised of faculty, staff and students. He said that that a separate appeals board had also reviewed appeal requests from all three students.
"This incident was highly visible and raised many concerns for people on campus and in the community," Jones said. "True to our mission as an educational institution, many of you used this incident as an opportunity to engage with the critical issues around race in our society."
The Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration organization (CAAMI), which has publicly supported the women along with other Black Lives Matter activists, issued a statement Tuesday, calling the university's proceedings "disgraceful, disingenuous, and indicative of the racism that permeates UAlbany and campuses around the country."
"The UAlbany Judicial Board hearing was a complete mockery of fairness and justice, devoid of testimony from ANYONE with first-hand knowledge of what occurred on the bus that evening," CAAMI's statement said. "The criminal hearing is poised to be equally dubious."
The university's president had backtracked on his initial support to the three women in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
On the day of the incident, Jones issued a statement saying, "three of our students were harassed and assaulted," and that he was "deeply concerned, saddened and angry." He said the police and university administration were working "to support our young women." He also promised to hold those accountable if the perpetrators were found to be UAlbany students.
"There is no place in the UAlbany community for violence, no place for racial intolerance and no place for gender violence," Jones said.
As more details on the incident emerged, Jones issued another statement in February saying, "things may not have happened the way that they were originally portrayed by our three students."
Saying that his initial response was "grounded in compassion," Jones said that he had to work with information available to him at the time and that he trusted the students.
He said that conduct process for the three students was underway at the time.
The university did not have a comment on the indictment for the three students, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News Thursday.