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Newsletter > January 2009 > "DEATH LEADS TO CHARGES AT UTAH STATE"
DEATH LEADS TO CHARGES AT UTAH STATE
Tim Burke, Manley Burke, firstname.lastname@example.org
The death of Michael Starks, an 18-year old freshman at Utah State University, has led to criminal charges against two fraternity chapters and 12 Greek members who are alleged to have been involved in his death. According to an Affidavit filed in support of the information which issued the charges, Michael died of acute alcohol poisoning, his blood alcohol content being measured at .373.
Michael and one of his fellow Sigma Nu pledges, the Affidavit states, were taken by Signa Nu brothers to the Chi Omega House “under the guise of assisting the Sorority to move some furniture.” Once there, members of Chi Omega “captured” them, took them to the residence of a Sigma Nu officer where the captured pledges were asked to strip to their underwear. They were painted blue and white (Utah State colors) and during that activity, Michael Starks and the other pledge were offered vodka.
The affidavit goes on to describe that ultimately, the pledges were “rescued” by their fellow Sigma Nu pledges and returned to the Sigma Nu House. There, they were cleaned up and then put to bed. While the Affidavit acknowledges that Starks was monitored by members of Sigma Nu, at approximately 3:45 on the morning of November 21, 2008, members of Sigma Nu discovered Michael had stopped breathing. Neither the CPR done by one of the members, nor by emergency services, was able to revive him and he was pronounced dead by the treating emergency room physician.
The “Chi Omega Sorority Logan, Utah Chapter Association,” and the “Sigma Nu Fraternity Logan, Utah Chapter/Association,” have both been charged with a third degree felony for violating Utah’s Anti-Hazing Statute. Four members of Sigma Nu and eight members of Chi Omega have been charged with misdemeanor violations of Utah’s Hazing Statute. One member of Sigma Nu has been charged with obstructing justice and a member of Chi Omega charged with “supplying alcohol to a minor.” The conviction of a third degree felony in the State of Utah carries with it a possible sentence of up to five years in prison. Of course an association cannot be put in jail, but it can be fined. In this case, a fine under Utah law could be as much as $20,000. Conviction of misdemeanor hazing carries with it a sentence of up to one year in prison, as does obstruction of justice and supplying alcohol to a minor. Fines for the misdemeanor violations by the individuals could be up to $2,500.
Bear in mind that mere charges alone do not make either the chapters or the 12 individuals guilty; just the opposite, they are each presumed innocent until proven guilty. The criminal prosecutions are only beginning.
The indictment of the two fraternity chapters is highly unusual, but not unprecedented. In 1998, the District Attorney in Boston, Massachusetts indicted the Phi Gamma Delta Chapter at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Chapter was charged with one count of manslaughter and one count of hazing following the death of Scott Krueger. Rather than pursue any criminal charges against any of the individuals involved, only the fraternity chapter was charged. Shortly thereafter, the chapter was disbanded, leaving no entity to be prosecuted in the Massachusetts case. More recently, as reported in the last issue of Fraternal Law, criminal charges involving hazing and alcohol violations were filed against the Phi Mu Delta Chapter at the University of New Hampshire. Those charges remain pending in spite of the fact that the national organization has revoked the Chapter’s charter.
The Utah case is particularly disturbing because of the death of Michael Starks and because both Chi Omega and Sigma Nu have strong national policies against hazing and have been leaders in that area. Like virtually every national and international Greek organization, they have taken steps to halt hazing activity. When hazing is identified, they have every reason to deal with it from a disciplinary standpoint. More importantly, both have programs designed to educate their members against hazing.
On January 6th, the Cache County Attorney issued two letters. The first went to the President of Utah State University and the Executive Directors of Chi Omega and Sigma Nu. In that letter, the County attorney made it clear that he was not considering any charges against the University or the two national fraternities. He said:
There is no evidence that would justify such considerations. Just the opposite is the case. The charged activities of the two local chapters are in express violation of the student code of the University and the policies and rules of the two fraternal organizations. We recognize that all of your organizations have made and continue to make significant efforts to curb the ongoing and endemic problem of alcohol and substance abuse among college students. These problems are recognized to include not only hazing violations, but binge drinking, public inebriation, minors with alcohol, drug use, etc.
The County Attorney went on to say that his office concluded that the two local chapters charged “were intent on conducting these hazing activities away from the USU Campus for the precise reason that if the University … [or] local advisors or the national organizations learned of these violations, there would be sanctions and penalties against both the individuals and the chapters.”
A second letter was issued to the social clubs, organizations, fraternities and sororities on the Utah State University campus. That letter clearly put student organizations on notice that their activities would be monitored for criminal violations. The County Attorney discussed rumors that
… there is surveillance and infiltration of other campus organizations and social clubs and that informants are being used to attend, monitor and make reports about on and off campus parties, social gatherings, etc. You may have heard that some individuals having substance abuse issues are being given the opportunity to obtain leniency in return for their ongoing participation. Further, that those individuals may even be carrying cameras and/or are wired.
Let me confirm your suspicions and disregard. All of the things you think might be happening are indeed happening and will continue to happen.
He warned that organizations should “respond by making absolutely sure that your organization is not participating in any inappropriate conduct or condoning the same.”
He advised that “if some of your members cannot control their risky behaviors, you may wish, for the sake of your organization, to separate such persons from your organization.”
He concluded saying “the tragic Michael Starks death is more than enough for this community. I do hope you will find this memorandum threatening.”
Law enforcement agencies appear to be looking more and more to use criminal sanctions against organizations whose members violate hazing laws.
When combined with alcohol, as it is alleged to have been in the Utah case, hazing can lead to tragic consequences. Even when alcohol is not involved or no injury occurs, hazing is antithetical to the very purposes of the promotion of brotherhood and sisterhood that Greek organizations promote. But it is unfortunately equally true that some people just don’t get the message. When a tragedy happens, it can be anticipated that criminal actions will follow, even though the entire activity was initially intended to be “fun.” In this instance, not only has a promising young life been lost, but the futures of 12 other young people are now very clouded. Not only do they and the chapters face criminal trials, but civil litigation can also be anticipated.