Liberty University is standing by its scholarship offer to high school senior David Cole Withrow, 18, a professed Christian and Eagle Scout who allegedly brought two shotguns April 29 onto the campus of his high school in Princeton, N.C.
Withrow had been skeet shooting over the weekend, and reports quickly spread that Withrow did not realize he had left the unloaded guns in his truck. News outlets reported that when the student discovered his mistake, he approached school officials in an attempt to remove the guns safely. Police then arrested and charged Withrow with bringing a weapon onto educational property, a felony.
The case received national attention, painting Withrow as a victim of rampant gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown shootings. A Twitter and T-shirt campaign railed “#FreeCole.”
Within days, Withrow had scholarship offers from Liberty University, where his sister attended, and Harding University in Searcy, Ark. Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. personally reached out to Withrow after seeing him wearing a Liberty T-shirt in news coverage.
But those scholarship offers came into question when Withrow admitted in his May 16 court appearance that he had lied:
“I was not truthful … I did in fact know that the two shotguns were in my truck on school property. I did not mean to hurt anyone by my actions.”
By pleading guilty, prosecutors reduced the felony charge to a misdemeanor.
Withrow tweeted that afternoon: “I’ve already talked to Mr. Jerry Falwell Jr. He told me not to worry about it and be at Liberty in the fall!”
Falwell and Liberty released a statement May 17 standing by Withrow, saying the student was “accepting the prosecutor’s position” that he knew he had the guns.
“We … knew that he might have to publicly take the blame, whether he was at fault or not, in order to have the charges reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor,” Falwell said. “… I believe that is exactly what happened here.”
But District Attorney Susan Doyle painted a different picture, according to Raleigh’s WRAL. Doyle said school security video shows Withrow speaking with other students at the time he claimed he discovered the guns. In addition, Sheriff’s deputy Adam Davis said the barrel of one gun was near the gas pedal. Privacy laws had prevented school officials from coming forward with evidence against media and Withrow’s claims.
Falwell could not be reached for comment Monday morning. Communications director John Moore said the scholarship remains “whatever he needs” to come to Liberty. Liberty costs $20,000 per year.
Withrow is finishing his senior year through an alternative school. Johnston County Superintendent Ed Croom modified a mandatory one-year suspension to allow him to graduate from the county system this year.
“In any event, Liberty University is pleased that the charges against Cole Withrow were reduced to a misdemeanor,” Falwell’s statement read. “But we still believe this is more punishment than he deserved.”