Illini DL arrested in possible hate crime

An Illinois football player arrested in an attack that police say may have been motivated by the victims’ sexual orientation has a previous felony conviction for cocaine possession.

Chris Jones, a 20-year-old freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., faces an aggravated battery charge but has not yet entered a plea after a brief initial court appearance Tuesday, police and court officials said.

Jones was arrested just after midnight Sunday after two men reported that he punched them outside a local bar, Champaign police Deputy Chief Troy Daniels said. The men said Jones, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound defensive lineman, had been in a car that had just driven by them.

”The occupants of the vehicle were calling out slurs based on their sexual orientation,” Daniels said, explaining that the men said they were a couple.

The men – a 19-year-old who stands 5-9 and weighs about 140 pounds and a 28-year-old who is 5-9 and weighs roughly 165 pounds – had minor facial injuries, Daniels said.

Jones, told police he was retaliating for an attack by the men earlier in the week, Daniels said.

Jones has been assigned a public defender but a message left with that office by The Associated Press was not returned Tuesday. Jones, who was being held on $100,000 bond, did not respond to an e-mail from the AP.

Jones won’t be charged with committing a hate crime in spite of the alleged circumstances because aggravated battery carries a longer possible sentence – two to five years rather than one to three – Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said.

”There is evidence to suggest that the victims’ sexual orientation was the basis for the battery,” she said, ”but we are better off charging it as aggravated battery.”

Jones has been suspended from the football team until head coach Ron Zook has time to consider the matter, university spokesman Kent Brown said. Jones was expected to see playing time this fall.

Court records from Duval County, Fla., which includes Jones’ hometown, show he pleaded guilty in July 2010 to cocaine possession and was sentenced to 60 days of unsupervised probation.

Brown initially said Zook and the Illini coaching staff knew about the conviction when Jones signed his letter of intent in February to attend Illinois. He said later he had learned the coaching staff wasn’t aware of Jones’ cocaine conviction.