Fraternities have rarely been prosecuted after the hazing death of a student, and experts described the sentencing as one of the most stringent punishments handed down in such a case.
The student, Chun Hsien Deng, had traveled in December 2013 from New York City to a rental house in the Poconos where he was supposed to finish the pledging process for Pi Delta Psi, an Asian-American fraternity. Early on a frigid morning, Mr. Deng — blindfolded and wearing a backpack weighted with sand — was tackled and pushed around by fraternity members before he fell unconscious, the authorities said. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead the next day.
“This has proved to be the most troubling case to me in 19 years,” Judge Margherita Patti-Worthington said while issuing her ruling on Monday, referring to the details of Mr. Deng’s death and her time as a judge. She also noted the continued threat posed by hazing, pointing out another case in Pennsylvania, where a 19-year-old student died last year after a “pledge night” of drunken partying. “You only need to look at Penn State these days to understand,” she said.
Pi Delta Psi was also ordered to pay $112,500 in fines, and it was forbidden from operating in Pennsylvania as a condition of 10 years of probation imposed by the judge. The fraternity has two chapters in Pennsylvania, its lawyer said.
The fraternity plans on appealing, arguing that prosecutors had unfairly conflated the actions of individual members with those of the national fraternity. Prosecutors had described the rituals Mr. Deng had participated in as widely used by the fraternity, but Wieslaw Niemoczynski, the fraternity’s lawyer, said on Monday that the brutality of the hazing Mr. Deng faced was a “deviation and departure” from the usual ritual.
The fraternity, in a statement issued after the sentencing, described Mr. Deng, who went by Michael, as “the type of pledge who would likely become a model fraternity brother.”
“Michael Deng’s death was a loss not only to the family, but also to the fraternity and the community at large,” the fraternity said. Its members “feel shame and dishonor that fraternity brothers could be so callous and inhumane.”
The case has been noted as an example of prosecutors increasingly taking a more aggressive stance in pursuing criminal charges after college students are killed while being hazed.
But in Mr. Deng’s case, prosecutors took the unusual measure of charging the fraternity, which has had mixed results in previous cases. Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College who tracks hazing cases, described the decision to prosecute and the outcome as noteworthy. Universities and student organizations have instituted educational programs and tightened rules to combat hazing. Yet, as students continue to die, Mr. Deng’s case could have broader implications.
“I think it’s a strategy that may work,” Professor Nuwer said, calling the amount of the fine and limitations implemented by the judge “not common at all.”
Five men and the fraternity were charged with third-degree murder, among other charges. Four of the men, who are expected to be sentenced later on Monday, pleaded guilty in May to reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter and hindering apprehension after reaching an agreement with prosecutors. The fraternity was acquitted of the murder charge in November.
Mr. Deng, an 18-year-old from Queens, collapsed while taking part in a ritual known as the “glass ceiling,” a gauntlet meant to represent the plight of Asian-Americans. He was the most defiant of the pledges, riling other fraternity members by kicking one of the men lined up to tackle him and not saying things he was supposed to, according to a grand jury report released in 2015. The others reacted forcefully, knocking him to the ground and one of them ran toward him from 15 feet away with his head lowered, the report said.
The members carried him inside; Mr. Deng’s body was stiff and his breathing became labored. They changed his clothes and tried unsuccessfully to revive him; one searched the internet for answers and another sent text messages to a friend asking about when his grandfather died after falling.
One of the fraternity members later told investigators, according to the report, they had resisted calling for an ambulance because one of them had looked up the cost and they thought it was expensive. A national fraternity official told members over the phone to hide anything bearing the fraternity’s logo, the report said.
About an hour later, Mr. Deng was driven to a hospital, where doctors found that he had sustained severe head trauma and his body head was covered in bruises. He died the next day.