After four days of arguments and exhaustive witness accounts about the events leading to the death of George Desdunes ’13, Judge Judith Rossiter J.D. ’86 closed the criminal trial of three former Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity pledges for deliberation on Thursday.
The defendants, who are charged with first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child, now face what may be an agonizing wait for Rossiter’s verdict as the case, arising from the death of Desdunes on Feb. 25, 2011, approaches its end. Promising to issue the statement without unduly delay but asking for patience with the matter, Rossiter said that “with a case of this magnitude,” she would have been “remiss in my duties if I were, at this point, to just go back [to the back room], come back and give a one-word statement.”
Although she said nothing to hint at what direction she would take with her deliberation — the trial was held without a jury — Rossiter imparted a message to the defendants before she closed the trial.
“Even college boys who are engaging in what they hope is good fun are subject to the same rules of time and death as anyone else. If nothing else, I hope they take that from this experience,” she said.
In the nearly three hours of closing arguments preceding Rossiter’s comments, both sides brought a variety of evidence — witness testimonies, autopsy reports, photographs of shot glasses from the SAE house — under scrutiny before the court.
Throughout the trial, the defense lawyers have vouched for the innocuousness of the mock-kidnapping that preceded Desdunes’ death, while the prosecution has asserted that the defendants were reckless in their actions.
A play, a ceremony, a bonding experience, fun — this, defense attorney Kelly Damm said, is how witnesses described the mock-kidnapping Desdunes participated in.
Although what began as a traditional ritual staged by SAE pledges at a North Campus townhouse ended in tragedy, defense attorney Raymond Schlather J.D. ’76 said that, ultimately, Desdunes “is the one who is responsible for his own death.” Nobody forced Desdunes to drink, said defense attorney Jon Blechman, describing the kidnapping as “no funnels. Just fun.”
Imploring Rossiter to acquit Max Haskin ’14, Ben Mann ’14 and Edward Williams ’14 of the charges, the defense said that the Pixie sticks, water and alcohol the defendants allegedly fed Desdunes did not pose a “substantial risk of death” to him. Even if that alcohol “tipped the scale,” the pledges did not recklessly disregard risk to Desdunes’ safety because they were unaware of how much alcohol Desdunes had consumed beforehand, Schlather said.
For instance, Schlather said, Haskin, Mann and Williams were unable to attend many of the fraternity’s weekend activities because they were often away for varsity sports games, and could not possibly have known about Desdunes’ reputation as a heavy drinker.
“They’re 19-year-olds. They’re not medical experts. And therefore, they did not consciously disregard this risk of death,” Schlather said.
Assistant District Attorney Andrew Bonavia, however, said the defendants, in failing to call for help and leaving Desdunes on a couch in the SAE fraternity after the kidnapping, acted recklessly.
“I’m not sure how much worse off a person could be before you took further actions than just leaving them on a couch,” he said. Desdunes was found unresponsive on an SAE couch the morning after the kidnapping, and was then taken to Cayuga Medical Center, where he died.
Bonavia also rebuffed that the kidnapping was, as the defense characterized, a harmless one-hour affair.
“What do we know about these mock kidnappings? Are they as innocent as they seem? They involve crunches; they involve hot sauce; they involve alcohol. There’s a point in that. The point is to throw up,” Bonavia said.
Bonavia also said that, contrary to Schlather’s argument that Desdunes had died “primarily because of respiratory distress,” Desdunes was not killed by his illness.
“He stopped breathing because he had too much to drink,” Bonavia said, referring to the alcohol that the defendants allegedly fed Desdunes while he was tied up in the townhouse. “There is no evidence that he died of swollen glands.”
Defense laywer Damm, however, said that there was no evidence that Desdunes drank alcohol at the townhouse.
“If the court assumes that the six to seven small amounts of the substance Greg Wyler [’12] believes to be vodka was consumed by George [Desdunes] — and I say this because there’s no evidence George drank any of this — it is not presumable this small amount killed him,” she said.
As they closed their speeches, both sides urged Rossiter to heed their arguments and make the right judgment.
Shedding tears as he invoked the sanctity of the Constitution, Schlather said to Rossiter, “You’ve sat on this bench for many, many years. You’ve done a tremendous job protecting rights, and this is just one more chance for you to stand up to that Constitution … Let [these men] go about their lives and let the chips fall where they may.”
Bonavia, asking Rossiter to find the defendants guilty, bitterly cited Blechman’s description of the kidnapping event as “no funnels, no fun,” as he concluded his address.
“I wonder if it was fun for George Desdunes to be dragged back to his couch and to be left there with a bucket, to try to breathe,” he said. “Thank goodness it was a fraternity, that they were a brotherhood, that they stick together. Oh wait — they didn’t do that.”