ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- About 500 students will graduate this weekend from Atlanta's prestigious Morehouse College. One person who won't be there is Rashad Johnson, shot three times by a fellow student. But the shooter will receive his diploma -- part of a plea deal that spared him up to 20 years in prison.
Joshua Brandon Norris was given a plea deal that avoided jail time and mandated he stay in college.
It's a puzzling case that raises a huge question: How can this be?
Even Atlanta's chief district attorney, Paul Howard, is outraged by the generous plea deal, an offer that was made by a prosecutor under his command.
"First of all, for the victim and his family, they deserved a better resolution," said Howard, a Morehouse graduate himself. "It seems like the wrong person got the right benefit."
Joshua Brandon Norris faced one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a second count for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. But in a court hearing in January, he was presented with what the judge described as "the break of your life." Watch Justice for all? »
He pleaded no contest to the first count; the second charge was dropped. He got six years of probation, a $1,000 fine and 240 hours of community service. He avoided any jail time, and the plea also mandated that he "remain in college and complete your college degree," according to court transcripts. The sentence was not the judge's idea, but he followed the prosecutor's recommendation.
Johnson, who still has a bullet in his left leg, says he wasn't told about the court hearing. When he learned of the plea deal, his reaction was: "He's gotta return to college? This criminal?"
Johnson's father died three months before the shooting. He had taken the semester off to grieve for his father, but remained in Atlanta and had planned to return to Morehouse the following semester. After the shooting, he went home to California to be with his mom and recover from his injuries.
His mother, Fahizah Johnson, said, "I am so disappointed because Morehouse has been an institution in my family for three generations."
"This guy shot my son three times, and he's still in school? He's still a student with other students?" she said. "I'm hurt for my son. I'm hurt for his dream deferred, but it's not over. And I'm thankful for his life and I'm thankful for his spirit."
The incident began at a Halloween party in 2007 at an Atlanta club, where Morehouse college kids had gathered for a bash. The club owner said he saw Norris causing trouble, and a bouncer threw him out the front door.
Minutes later, the people in the club heard gunshots and everyone hit the floor. The club owner said the shooter was the man he saw kicked out.
Johnson told CNN that there was an altercation outside the club and that he exchanged words with Norris. He said he didn't think much of it, and he began walking to his car when Norris pulled up in his Hummer, got out of the vehicle and pointed a gun at his head.
"When he put the gun to my head, all I could think about was I'm not going to let this kid take me away from my mom, especially with what she's dealing with right now," Johnson said.
He said he grabbed Norris' wrist and pulled his arm down when shots rang out. "I felt the sharpest burning sensation when the first bullet hit my leg. It actually made my leg buckle," he said.
Norris would not go on camera with CNN, and neither would his attorney. But his lawyer said that at the time of the shooting, his client felt his life was threatened and was defending himself.
CNN also asked Morehouse officials to comment on why Norris was allowed back in school and asked if they ever talked about safety considerations involving other students there. The school had allowed Norris to return to classes, even before the plea was entered.
Morehouse refused to discuss the issue on camera. But in a written statement, the school said, "The college cannot comment on specific student conduct matters, incidents of inappropriate student behavior, whether on or off campus."
The assistant district attorney who made the plea deal could not be reached for comment. Howard, his boss, said that the prosecutor of the case has resigned and that he would have been fired for his handling of this case. Howard feels a stiffer penalty was warranted.
"We are sorry this happened for so many reasons," Howard said. "When something like this happens, I am very upset by it."
He added, "It was an inappropriate sentence."
As for Johnson, he is attending Sacramento City College and plans to attend law school after he graduates in 2011. Johnson said he no longer wants to be a Morehouse man. The fact that Norris is graduating this weekend, he said, is an injustice.
"I really feel sick, like how could this happen," he said, fighting back tears.
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