October 25, 2012

Court Sentences SAE Fraternity; Former Cornell Chapter to Pay $12,000

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The defunct Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter at Cornell was sentenced on Thursday after the Tompkins County Court convicted the organization for its role in the events leading to the death of SAE brother George Desdunes ’13. The chapter was fined $12,000.

Though no representative of the fraternity’s former Cornell chapter appeared at the hearing, Desdunes’ mother, Marie Lourdes Andre, spoke at the hearing, according to a press release from the Office of the Tompkins County District Attorney.

Andre requested that the judge impose the maximum possible sentence in order to underscore a message that hazing will not be tolerated, the press release said.

Judge Judith Rossiter J.D. ’86 said that SAE’s Cornell chapter guilty of Desdunes’ death on the three misdemeanor counts laid out in the criminal case.

On Thursday, the fraternity chapter was fined the maximum $5,000 fine for unlawfully dealing with a child in the first degree, the maximum $5,000 for criminal nuisance in the second degree and the maximum $2,000 for hazing in the first degree, the press release said.

However, in a separate proceeding in June, Judge Rossiter acquitted three former SAE pledges of criminal charges, arguing that Max Haskin ’14, Ben Mann ’14 and Edward Williams ’14 were not responsible for Desdunes’ death.

The two rulings highlight different legal battles that have emerged as a result of Desdunes’ death, which occurred on Feb. 25, 2011, after Desdunes participated in a fraternity hazing ritual.

In a separate civil suit against the national SAE organization, Desdunes’ mother argues that both the fraternity and several of its brothers were responsible for forcing reckless behavior on her son.

According to allegations Desdunes’ mother made in the civil case, several SAE pledges kidnapped Desdunes, tied a noose around his neck and kept him bound and blindfolded while pledges quizzed him on fraternity history. Each time Desdunes answered incorrectly, the pledges forced him to perform exercises or drink alcoholic substances.

In March, the national fraternity filed a defense brief in the civil suit in which they denied all charges and argued that only Desdunes himself was responsible for the conduct that led to his death. The fraternity denied that the organization has a pledging process and claimed that it does not require any activity from pledges.

For the civil proceeding, Kings County Judge Karen Rothenberg will decide in Brooklyn whether or not to allow a subpoena filed in September. The subpoena would require Cornell to provide extensive records — including all photographs or videotapes of any SAE fraternity event, as well as records of police and medical calls related to SAE — to the court.

Desdunes’ mother is suing the fraternity for $25 million in damages.

Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson acknowledged that there is a stark difference between the two payments.

“Fines, like the ones issued today, are very different than damages. That’s why you often see such a huge difference in state penal awards fines versus civil damage awards,” she said.

Neither University staff nor any SAE representatives returned requests for comment Thursday.­­

Original Author: Harrison Okin