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Prosecutors Drop Charges Against College Officials for Hazing DeathTwo Rider University officials who faced possible jail time in connection with the death of an 18-year-old fraternity pledge after a night of binge drinking had their charges dismissed on Tuesday at the prosecution's request. Assistant Mercer County, N.J., prosecutor Skylar Weissman told the court that his office had insufficient evidence to move ahead with prosecution of the officials, the first known case of college officials being criminally charged with complicity in a hazing incident.
New Jersey Law Journal2007-08-29 12:00:00 AM
Two Rider University officials who faced possible jail time in connection with the death of an 18-year-old fraternity pledge after a night of binge drinking had their charges dismissed on Tuesday at the prosecution's request.
Assistant Mercer County, N.J., prosecutor Skylar Weissman told the court that his office had insufficient evidence to move ahead with prosecution of the officials, the first known case of college officials being criminally charged with complicity in a hazing incident.
Rider's dean of students, Anthony Campbell, and the director of fraternity life, Ada Badgley, were indicted on Aug 3 on charges of aggravated hazing, allegedly by allowing a pledge party at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity of the Lawrenceville, N.J., college, at which prospective members were required to drink excessive amounts of liquor.
Freshman Gary DeVercelly, of Long Beach, Calif., collapsed at the March 28 party and died two days later. According to prosecutors, DeVercelly drank one shot of vodka every minute and a half to two minutes for about 25 minutes before passing out. When taken to a hospital, he was found to have a blood-alcohol content of .426 percent, five times the legal limit for drunken driving. Another student, William Williams, suffered alcohol poisoning but survived.
Charges of aggravated hazing remain pending against three fraternity leaders: president Michael Torney, 21; pledge master Dominic Olsen, 21; and student residence director Adriano DiDonato, 22. They all have pleaded not guilty.
The hazing statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:40-3b, makes a fourth-degree crime of knowingly or recklessly organizing, promoting, facilitating or engaging in conduct, in connection with initiation of applicants to or members of a student or fraternal organization, which results in serious bodily injury to another person. A conviction carried a potential 18-month prison sentence and a $10,000 fine.
Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr. said at the time of the indictment that the grand jury had sent "a clear message that there is a culpability involved in the ingestion of alcoholic beverages on college campuses."
But Bocchini told reporters after Tuesday's hearing that he was not convinced a jury could have been persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt about the administrators' guilt. Judge Maria Marinari Sypek granted the prosecution's motion to dismiss.
Campbell's attorney, Haddon Heights, N.J., solo Rocco Cipparone Jr., said afterward, "We have always been confident that at the end of the process there would be an exoneration. We're pleased that the process moved along so expeditiously."
In a separate statement, Cipparone said there was no evidence of improper conduct on Campbell's part and that he "never would have condoned, promoted or facilitated in any way the conduct that led to Mr. DeVercelly's death."
Badgley's attorney, David Laigaie, of Philadelphia's Dilworth Paxson, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
The two administrators have remained employees in good standing with the university despite the criminal charges.
Sheldon Steinbach, a lawyer who represents colleges, says Bocchini's decision to seek dismissal "demonstrates the height of professionalism and clear thought." Steinbach, of Washington, D.C.'s Dow Lohnes, noted that college administrators from across the country had been closely watching the progress of the case and said the possibility that administrators could be held criminally liable for hazing could lead to a situation in which they would begin to have "second thoughts" about their careers.
Douglas Fierberg, an attorney representing the DeVercelly family, declined to comment. "The family cannot analyze the actions made by the prosecutors. We don't have access to all the evidence they [prosecutors] and the grand jury can review," says Fierberg, of Washington, D.C.'s Bode & Grenier.
"Nevertheless, we remain concerned because our information indicates the university had a significant role in the death of Gary ... and the events leading to his death." The family, he says, has not yet decided whether to pursue civil claims against the university, Campbell and Badgley, or the fraternity.
Since the fatal incident, Rider has dissolved the fraternity chapter and has issued rules that prohibit social events with alcohol in residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses and mandate stiff fines and parental notification for violations of alcohol rules. The university also instituted a Good Samaritan policy that encourages students to seek medical help for other students who are under the influence of alcohol.