Miya Ponsetto pleads guilty to attacking black teenager at SoHo hotel

A California woman who attacked a black teenager at a SoHo hotel after falsely accusing him of stealing her cellphone pleaded guilty Monday to a felony hate crime charge stemming from the altercation. Parts of it were captured in widely circulated video.

Under the terms of her plea, the woman, Miya Ponsetto, 23, avoided jail time and can enter a new plea for a lesser misdemeanor charge if she completes her probation in a drunk driving case in California . She must also continue to counsel and have no contact with the criminal justice system for the next two years, officials said.

The hotel episode was a high-profile example of the kind of false accusations black people routinely face in New York and elsewhere. It happened several months after a white woman called 911 to falsely claim that a black bird watcher in Central Park was threatening her life. (Last year, a lawyer for Ms Ponsetto said she was of Puerto Rican and Vietnamese descent.)

In a statement announcing Ms Ponsetto’s plea, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, pointed to what he called “scandalous behavior” in attacking Keyon Harrold Jr., the 14-year-old son of a prominent jazz musician, in the lobby. from the Arlo hotel in December 2020.

“As a black male, I have personally been the victim of racial profiling countless times in my life, and I sympathize with the young male victim of this incident,” Mr. Bragg said in the statement. “This plea secures appropriate accountability for Ms Ponsetto by addressing the underlying causes of her behavior and ensuring that this conduct does not recur.”

Ms Ponsetto’s lawyer, Paul D’Emilia, said in a statement that he and his client “are delighted that today’s proceedings have brought this unfortunate misunderstanding closer to a final resolution”.

“We appreciate the district attorney’s thoughtful and empathetic approach to coming to an acceptable conclusion,” D’Emilia added in the statement, “particularly in light of the unreasonable pressure exerted by many voices who do not know the more granular details of what happened that night.

The “multi-voiced” comment was an apparent reference to the angry public outcry the episode sparked when video capturing parts began ricocheting across social media shortly after the altercation that occurred on December 26, 2020.

The video was filmed by jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold, who was staying at the Arlo with his son. The two men had just come down to the hotel lobby for brunch when Ms. Ponsetto, whom they did not know, accosted them.

The video shows tensions escalating quickly, with Ms Ponsetto insisting the teenager has the phone and yelling at father and son, as Mr Harrold insists she is wrong.

“No,” he can be heard shouting. “I’m not letting him leave with my phone!”

The video also shows a man who identifies himself as a hotel manager saying he’s “trying to help” while appearing to confront the teenager on the phone.

Separate footage captured by a hotel security camera shows Ms Ponsetto attacking the teenager. The phone was later found and returned by an Uber driver.

Ms Ponsetto, who fled the hotel, was arrested in California around 10 days later, but not before taking part in a nationally televised interview that quickly turned from an opportunity to apologize into a apology exercise.

In an interview with The New York Times shortly after the hotel episode, Mr Harrold said the events had left him “shocked”.

“I wonder what would happen if it was different, if it was a black woman and if there was a white 14-year-old,” he added in the interview. He also condemned the way the hotel manager confronted his son: “They assumed he was guilty.”

The hotel then released a statement apologizing to Mr Harrold and his son, saying it was ‘deeply discouraged by the recent incident of baseless accusation, bias and assault on an innocent guest “.

The original charges in the case did not include hate crimes, but the district attorney’s office added two counts of second-degree unlawful imprisonment as a hate crime last year. Ms Ponsetto pleaded not guilty at the time.

On Monday, she pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful imprisonment in the second degree as a hate crime, a felony. If she adheres to the terms of the plea, she will be allowed to plead guilty to second-degree aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor that includes an element of a hate crime, in two years.

In his statement, Mr. D’Emilia said it was “Mrs. Ponsetto’s wish that Keyon Harrold would accept his regret and apology for his behavior that night, and that everyone involved could move forward with more insight and compassion.

Reached on Monday, Mr Harrold said such an apology was insufficient for his son having been ‘wrongfully and aggressively attacked in the lobby of the Arlo Hotel’ in an ‘unprovoked assault’, and that it ‘underplays the trauma that Keyon, Jr…continues to feel.

“However,” he added, “we blame not only Ms. Ponsetto for the attack, but the Arlo Hotel for allowing it to escalate and continue unabated.”

Mr. Harrold sued Mrs. Ponsetto; the hotel; the company that owns it, Quadrum Global; and the person responsible for the episode, which Mr Harrold describes in court documents as “another case of African Americans being harmed by baseless accusations in their daily lives”.

Quadrum’s media department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jonah E. Bromwich contributed reporting.

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