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Cornell Frat Guilty in Alcohol Hazing Death

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

Cornell University's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter was found guilty of hazing, while three frat members were cleared in the alcohol-related death of a pledge in 2011.

The conviction means the family of George Desdunes, 19, of Brooklyn, N.Y., will see -- at most -- $12,000 from the local fraternity chapter for the criminal conviction, The Ithaca Journal reports. But the family has also filed a civil lawsuit.

In a hazing ritual gone wrong, SAE fraternity pledges kidnapped Desdunes from his home, bound his hands and feet with zip ties and duct tape, and then forced him to drink alcohol until he passed out, according to The New York Times.

George Desdunes never regained consciousness after that hazing ritual. He was found dead hours later with his hands and feet still bound; a coroner's report showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.356%, more than four times New York's legal limit.

In the Cornell hazing death criminal trial, Sigma Alpha Epsilon's local chapter, along with three SAE members, were charged with first-degree hazing and providing alcohol to someone who was underage. The hazing charge covers any intentional or reckless conduct that "creates a substantial risk of physical injury ... and thereby causes such injury."

Verdicts for the three SAE members were sealed. But lawyers told The Times their cases turned on whether Desdunes was already intoxicated when he was kidnapped, and whether the men knew of his intoxication. Defense lawyers also argued Desdunes could have stopped the hazing ritual if he'd wanted to.

The local SAE chapter, however, did not defend itself in court. Because it is a corporation, it can only be fined. "If the chapter had any money they would pay for it, but I don't know if they do," an attorney for SAE's national headquarters told The Ithaca Journal. (The national headquarters is a separate legal entity from SAE's local chapter.)

The prosecutor was disappointed in the Cornell hazing death verdict. "We are not naive enough to think a fine will make up for death of a college student," he told The Journal. George Desdunes' family is also seeking $25 million in a wrongful-death lawsuit, which is pending.

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