Felony charges for Baruch fraternity brothers signal harsher penalties for violent hazing

 

A defendant in the Baruch hazing case meets with a lawyer in front of the Pennsylvania district court in Pocono Pines, Pa., in October. (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)

Fraternity brothers Steven Chen and Revel Deng were arraigned this week on criminal charges relating to the 2013 death of Baruch College student Chun “Michael” Deng, bringing the number of Pi Delta Psi members to be charged in the 19-year-old pledge’s fatal hazing to 37. 

The last of the Pi Delta Psi charges came one day after police in Albany, N.Y., charged a sixth fraternity member in conjunction with the hazing death of yet another 19-year-old pledge: University of Albany student Trevor Duffy. According to police reports, Duffy died last November after participating in an initiation ritual for an unsanctioned chapter of Zeta Beta Tau, in which "Duffy, along with other initiates, was required, ordered, and encouraged to drink 1.75 liters of alcohol of their choice."

A spokesperson for the Albany County district attorney’s office told Yahoo News that more arrests are expected in the Duffy case, but so far, those involved have only been charged with first-degree hazing, a misdemeanor. Deng’s death, on the other hand, has prompted unprecedented criminal prosecution — potentially signaling a shift toward harsher penalties for violent hazing.

All 37 frat brothers implicated in either Deng’s death or the alleged attempt to cover it up have been hit with a range of felony counts including aggravated and simple assault, hindering apprehension and criminal conspiracy, as well as hazing. Deng's death was caused by a traumatic brain injury sustained during a December retreat in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains where, as part of an initiation ritual, the student and other Pi Delta Psi pledges were blindfolded and made to carry sand-filled backpacks through the snow while being tackled by other fraternity members. 

The house where Chun Hsien Deng died after a hazing ritual during a fraternity retreat in 2013 is pictured in Blakeslee, Pa., in September, 2015. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Five of them, plus the national Pi Delta Psi Fraternity organization, face involuntary manslaughter and third-degree murder charges.

Hazing deaths are not a new phenomenon. According to Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has been tracking all hazing deaths in the U.S. for the past four decades, said there has been at least one hazing death among U.S. college and high school students every year since 1969.  But felony charges — and convictions — for those involved in such deaths are far less common.

Nuwer provided Yahoo News with a short list of about six fatal college hazings that resulted in criminal prosecution, including the 2008 alcohol-induced death of Utah State student Michael Starks, which sent a number of fraternity and sorority members to jail, and the 2005 death of Matthew Carrington, a Chi Tau pledge at California’s Chico State University, for which four fraternity brothers received jail sentences ranging from 90 days to 1 year, and which prompted the passage of “Matt’s Law,” allowing felony prosecutions of hazing-related injuries or deaths in the state of California. 

In 2012, 13 people were hit with criminal charges after Robert Champion, a member of the prestigious Florida A&M marching band, was beaten to death by fellow bandmates during an initiation ritual. The majority, however, received probation and community service, with the harshest penalty going to alleged ringleader Dante Martin, who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison in 2015. 

Douglas Fierberg, an attorney representing the Deng family, noted that there is a “dramatic difference” between the previous criminal prosecutions, even in the Florida case, and what Pennsylvania’s Monroe County district attorney’s office is pursuing with the Deng case.

“In the history of individuals dying from college hazing, there has never been this broad of criminal prosecution,” said Fierberg, who has built a practice representing the victims of school violence including fraternity hazing and sexual assault. “Historically very few individuals have been charged with felonies in relation to hazing.”

Dante Martin,left, enters the courtroom for his sentencing on in Orlando, Fla, in Jan., 2015. Martin, a former Florida A&M University band member was sentenced to more than six years in prison for manslaughter and felony hazing in the death of Robert Champion, a drum major, making him the first to receive prison time in the case. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/AP Photo)

Part of that has to do with the fact that anti-hazing laws vary from state to state: most classify hazing as a misdemeanor, some provide for both felony and misdemeanor-level hazing penalties, others have no anti-hazing legislation at all. But even where hazing deaths might warrant criminal charges, Fierberg said the biggest challenge to prosecution is the fact that “the likely defendents are college men who are professed to have their entire future ahead of them.”

Often times, especially with the help of criminal defense lawyers, that argument results in plea deals or lighter sentences.

But, Fierberg said, “I believe it’s important to change that.” He sees Pennsylvania’s action in the Deng case as “a decision to move forward to treat these people as no more or no less than anyone else who has violated the law.”

Local ABC affiliate News 10 reported this week that the misdemeanor charges resulting from Trevor Duffy’s death have prompted University of Albany students to call for tougher hazing regulations.  

Some New York State senators had apparently made an unsuccessful attempt to redefine first-degree hazing as a Class D felony in 2014. Assemblyman John McDonald told News 10 that the Duffy case seems to call for “a larger discussion [about] whether it should be an increased penalty.” Despite being denounced by the official policies of most national fraternity organizations, fraternity-related hazing incidents were responsible for more than 60 deaths since 2005, Bloomberg reported last year. And, also according to Bloomberg, the fraternity industry’s influential political lobby has managed to stop in their tracks any previous efforts to introduce federal anti-hazing legislation.  

Even more rare than felony prosecutions for hazing deaths are criminal charges filed against the fraternities themselves. But Fierberg said he thinks the national organizations should “absolutely” be held responsible in situations where initiation rituals for new members — sanctioned or not — result in death.

The national president of Pi Delta Psi Fraternity, which faces murder charges in the Deng case, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Andy Meng (R) arrives for an appearance at the Pennsylvania District Court in Pocono Pines, Pa., in October, 2015. Meng, who was the national president of the Pi Delta Psi fraternity when a Baruch College chapter hazing ritual resulted in the death of a pledge, is accused of orchestrating a coverup of the incident. (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)

Steven Chen and Revel Deng were both reportedly ordered to be sent to Monroe County Correctional Facility this week pending bails of $50,000 and $150,000, respectively. They and the rest of their frat brothers now await district court preliminary hearings, which will determine whether there is enough evidence for each of their cases to be tried in county court. All six of the young men arrested in the Duffy case pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor hazing charge and were released on their own recognizance with scattered court dates throughout November.

“I’d like to believe that people now recognize that hazing violence is not explained away as fun and games gone awry,” Fierberg said. “That it involves serious issues, and that people who haze and cause the death of others deserve to be punished seriously.”