A Partial Win for Prosecutors Who Targeted Fraternity After Student’s Death
Posted January 7, 2018 4:53 p.m. EST
STROUDSBURG, Pa. — For days, the pledges from Baruch College joining Pi Delta Psi had been ordered around by fraternity members and deprived of sleep. And after they left New York City for a rental house in the Poconos in December 2013, they faced yet another test, a final gantlet known as the “glass ceiling,” a ritual meant to represent their plight as Asian-American men.
Other pledges had crossed the frozen yard, blindfolded and wearing a backpack weighed down with sand, as fraternity members confronted them. But the last to go, Chun Hsien Deng, an 18-year-old freshman also known as Michael, had not been doing what he was told, and the other members responded aggressively.
He was lifted up and dropped to the ground and tackled before he fell unconscious, prosecutors said. After he was taken to a hospital, doctors found he had sustained severe head trauma and his body was covered in bruises.
Nearly two years after Deng’s death, officials here in Monroe County announced dozens of criminal charges — assault, hindering apprehension, hazing. Five men were charged with third-degree murder. But prosecutors also took an unusual measure: They charged Pi Delta Psi itself with criminal counts that included third-degree murder, aggravated assault and conspiracy.
The fraternity has argued that members were acting on their own, defying the organization’s rules forbidding hazing. But prosecutors contended that the rituals were actually intrinsic to the fraternity’s culture, a series of tests meant to humiliate prospective members as well as inculcate them with an understanding of their heritage as Asian-Americans and the adversity faced by their ancestors.
It was a process, as prosecutors claimed in court records, that had been “followed and repeated semester after semester for every colony or chapter.”
The case, in which 37 people were charged, has been cited as evidence of prosecutors across the country becoming more aggressive in pursuing criminal charges when college students are killed from hazing. But by charging the fraternity, prosecutors here took what legal experts described as a rare step, one that has had limited success but stands to bring about more stringent and far-reaching consequences.
Episodes involving students dying from hazing rituals have drawn increasing attention, driving universities and student organizations to respond by instituting educational programs and tightening rules surrounding the practice. But as students continue to die or get injured, anti-hazing advocates say more drastic action is vital and argue that criminal prosecutions, especially against the fraternities, could have a meaningful influence.
“This may actually send a message to the fraternities that they need to do more,” said David W. Bianchi, a lawyer in Miami who, for two decades, has represented parents in lawsuits after their children were killed.
In Deng’s case, prosecutors have had some success: In November, a jury acquitted Pi Delta Psi of third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, but did find it guilty of other charges, including aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter and hindering apprehension. The sentencing for the fraternity, as well as several of the men charged, is scheduled for Monday; the fraternity faces fines ranging from $2,000 to $25,000 for each charge, prosecutors said. (Baruch has permanently barred Pi Delta Psi).
“The fraternity has been held responsible for the senseless and completely avoidable death of a strong, smart, promising college freshman,” Kimberly A. Metzger, the assistant district attorney who led the prosecution, said in a statement following the verdict.
“There is nothing that will ever lift the burden of Michael’s tragic death from the hearts of his mother and father and their entire family,” she added. “But in speaking with Michael’s mother following the verdict, she reiterated for us what she has consistently wished from this case — that another young person isn’t subjected to such perverse conduct merely for wanting to belong.”
One of the earliest and highest-profile cases of prosecutors charging a fraternity came after the death, in 1997, of Scott Krueger, an 18-year-old freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was pledging to join the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. He fell into a coma after binge drinking, his blood-alcohol level reaching 0.40, five times the legal limit to drive, prosecutors said. The fraternity was indicted on homicide and hazing charges, while no individual members were charged. The case fell apart after the fraternity dissolved its chapter at MIT.
Another fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, was found guilty in 2012 of hazing and other charges after George Desdunes, a Cornell University sophomore from Brooklyn, died after drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. However, in that case, the fraternity did not present a defense; three students who were charged were acquitted.
Prosecutors routinely pursue criminal cases against institutions, often for white-collar crimes involving allegations of corporate malfeasance. Charges alleging violent offenses are less common.
Legal experts said the situation with fraternities is analogous to workplace cases, such as in mines or on construction sites, where prosecutors believe an employer’s negligence or wrongdoing contributed to a worker’s injury or death.
In such cases, prosecutors have to show that the death was “much more than pure possibility,” said David LaBahn, the president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. “This was a death that was preventable.” In the Baruch case, Pi Delta Psi has contended that the initiation rituals were unsanctioned. During the trial, the fraternity claimed that prosecutors had unfairly conflated the students’ actions with the organization’s in a way that was “misleading and directly prejudices the national fraternity.”
“A corporation can only act through a person,” the fraternity argued in court documents, adding that there was “no evidence presented” showing that the national fraternity had representatives at the retreat, was involved in its planning or “exhibited an intent to cause the tragic result.”
That weekend in 2013, fraternity members from Baruch, a commuter school in Manhattan whose Pi Delta Psi colony was only about 3 years old, gathered in a large rental house in Tunkhannock Township, Pennsylvania. Early on a frigid morning, Deng followed the other pledges in putting on a blindfold and backpack. According to a grand jury report released in 2015, other fraternity members pushed him around; one of them ran into him from 15 feet away, with his head lowered, the report said.
Deng was carried inside, unconscious, his body feeling like “dead weight,” the report said. Instead of immediately seeking medical aid, the authorities said, the other members changed his clothes and used their phones to search phrases like “concussion can’t wake up.” After about an hour, he was driven by fraternity members to a hospital, where he died the next day.
Four of the men who initially faced murder charges pleaded guilty in May to voluntary manslaughter and hindering apprehension after reaching an agreement with prosecutors.
In a statement, Deng’s family has called for a “punishment severe enough to forever remind them of the pain and grief we will carry for the rest of our lives as a result of their misconduct.”
Bianchi said the significance of the jury’s decision was the broader implications it could have, including alerting fraternities to the potential of being prosecuted.
“There has to be a consequence for this conviction,” Bianchi said, noting the possibility of fines and other penalties. “You can’t put the institution in jail.”