Five men will face murder charges over a 2013 incident where a college freshman was beaten up while walking blindfolded across a frozen yard in the Pennsylvania mountains.
Photo via Flickr user Nicholas A. Tonelli
As part of a hazing ritual two years ago, Chun Hsien "Michael" Deng was ordered to cross an icy expanse while blindfolded and carrying a heavy backpack. The 19-year-old was deep in "the Gauntlet," a rite of passage for Baruch College members of the Pi Delta Psi fraternity, who were on a retreat at a cabin in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains.
After being tackled, as well as picked up and dropped onto the ice, Deng complained of a headache. No one helped him, according to police, and even after the freshman tapped out, his tormenters did not act for an hour, instead calling former frat President Andy Meng, as the Associated Press reported. Now a grand jury in Pennsylvania has decided they should be held accountable for his death in the hospital a day later.
In an unprecedented case, 37 fraternity brothers are facing charges in Deng's death. According to the Monroe County District Attorneys Office, five young men and the frat itself will be up against charges of third-degree murder. As reported by the AP, police are staggering arrests and first going after lesser offenders, who have been charged with things like hazing and conspiracy.
The Pi Delta Psi organization could get fined, but Charles Lai, Kenny Kwan, Raymond Lam, Daniel Li, and Sheldon Wongwill face up to 20 years in prison if convicted for Deng's murder, according to the New York Times.
Sean Callan, a partner at Fraternal Law Partners, a firm that specializes in legal maters involving Greek organizations, says that he's seen fraternities charged with crimes related to underage drinking in the past, but that they usually just result in the frats in question being dissolved.
"Kind of like with [former energy giant] Enron, when [law firm] Arthur Andersen was charged," he told me. "There was no more Arthur Andersen. Fraternity chapters are just like companies."
The attorney has never seen charges this severe against a Greek organization, but sees it becoming the norm in the "foreseeable future."
Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written several books about hazing, said that dangerous and degrading hazing rituals have a lengthy history. "In the Middle Ages, it was both pain and humiliation," he told me. "Cutting a young student's lip open and making him drink from a salted cup, paddling, making a blindfolded young man tell his embarrassing confession to a confessor, who was just another student."
The practice has been tied to colleges pretty much as long as they've been around, too. In 1657, two Harvard students were suspended and fined for hazing, as the Times noted in 2012. While being in a fraternity does not make one more likely to get in brushes with the law later in life, according to Nuwer's research, brothers who are violently hazed are more likely to hit a pledge or force them to drink dangerous amounts of alcohol.
The mentality, then, is cyclical—and it clearly comes at a price. In America, there's been at least one hazing-related death per year since 1969, Nuwer says.
Deng's death is similar to that of 19-year-old Harrison Kowiach. In 2008, the golf prodigy was beaten to death by a gang of frat brothers while in pursuit of a so-called "sacred" rock at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina. No charges were pursued in that case, though the victim's mother did file a lawsuit in 2009.
In another incident, in 2011, a 26-year-student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University was beaten to death aboard a bus after a football game. For that, one person received six and a half years in prison, one received four years, another went to county jail for 51 weeks, and three were given ten years of probation.
As for what inspires this kind of violent hazing, Nuwer says that it all boils down to the desire for power.
"The newcomers will go through any amount of abuse in order to be full-status fraternity or band members," he told me. "[And] there seems to be a type of euphoria in the presence of groupthink—or Greek-think, as I call it. People will participate because they, like many athletes, believe the old adage: That if you cannot play with pain, you can't play."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.