Thanks to Matt Hayes with the Ithaca Journal, I have received a copy of the Judge’s decision in the case against the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Chapter at Cornell as it relates to issues surrounding the death of George Desdunes. If you read most of the articles from around the country, they seem to indicate that the verdict was that the chapter was guilty of hazing with alcohol causing the death of George Desdunes. It is clear that many of these articles are based solely on the original reporting by Matt Hayes, and do not accurately reflect his work.
My initial reaction to reading the first story was that this was potentially a very important decision. The original article indicates that the charges stemmed from a line-up and free access to alcohol during a time other than the night George Desdunes died. I am not aware of any other criminal verdicts against a chapter for this level of activity. If the State of New York was willing to hold a corporate entity (the chapter) liable for this level of activity, it would be a great tool for Cornell President Skorton to use in the push to eliminate hazing and pledging.
However, based on a close reading of the decision, and New York State laws, the guilty verdict is primarily based on the fact that the chapter did not show up to defend itself. The decision outlines the notification of charges, and very limited acknowledgement by an attorney, along with the appropriate NY law that allows the Judge to enter a plea on behalf of the defendant and impose sentence. The written decision also provides a paragraph of description of behavior that potentially could meet the definitions in the various laws related to the case.
Based on all of the materials I have seen, Judge Rossiter did exactly what she should have done in adjudicating this case. The description of hazing in the state law would not apply to the three pledges who were defendants. They possibly could have been found guilty of the second charge which related to giving alcohol to a minor (Desdunes was 19 at the time of his death). The third charge of criminal nuisance really didn’t apply to the individuals. With the description of certain behavior listed in the decision, and a lack of a defense, the Judge was fully justified in entering a plea of guilty on behalf of the chapter. Whether those charges would have stood up to a vigorous defense is irrelevant. This finding, and the potential $12,000 fine are all she had to work with in this case.
Since I would not expect the chapter to ever show up to discuss sentencing (the chapter, and corporation, have been dissolved), I would anticipate that Judge Rossiter will issue a fine for the maximum amount after making suitable attempts to notify the chapter (whoever that might be).
In my personal opinion, it would then make sense for the National organization of SAE, or the NY Alpha Chapter Alumni Association, to take the steps to resolve that obligation. The NY Alpha Chapter has over 120 years of history at Cornell, a large and active Alumni Association, and in 1985 donated their landmark chapter house, “Hillcrest,” to the University with an agreement to allow for the chapter’s continued use of the property. (I have no idea what that agreement might say about this type of situation.) With that, I would expect an attempt to return to Cornell in the fairly near future by SAE. It would probably be easier if they manage to clear the criminal case from the books.
As for the pending civil case, this outcome does not likely help the family of George Desdunes. The various corporate entities (National organization, headquarters, alumni association, National Foundation, etc.) that might have significant resources are fully isolated from the situation. While the New York Alpha Chapter is more likely to be found responsible, they have no resources, and no longer exist. It will also be a challenge to determine levels of responsibility among the twenty or so named individual defendants from the chapter. I anticipate that this will eventually end up with an out of court settlement, for a relatively small amount of money.
So far, pretty much everything about this case is frustrating. An initial glance at what happened, by any reasonable person, would indicate a death from hazing. However, as it works its way through the courts, and the legal obstacles thrown up along the way, it is very difficult to reach any significant accountability. The list of those responsible on a spiritual level is long. The list of those with any legal responsibility is likely to be empty.
Finally, thanks to Matt Hayes of the Ithaca Journal for his work in covering this case. He appears to have been the only journalist paying attention. As seen by the national attention following the decision, there was a lot of interest, and Matt was the only one doing the reporting.