8:34 AM EDT, September 15, 2007
TRENTON, N.J. – As a college student drank himself to death, two Rider University administrators had already gone home for the day, unaware of the fraternity party raging on the campus.
Yet four months later, the officials found themselves facing criminal hazing charges connected to the student’s death. The prosecutor defended the charges. A message, he said, was being sent to college administrators nationwide.
But in the end, chances are no one will go to jail for the 18-year-old’s drinking death in March. The indictments against the administrators were dropped, and most of the students indicted will avoid jail time and criminal records.
Now the prosecutor who once said the administrator indictments sent a message about the “standards of college life” says he was unsure from the beginning whether the charges would stick.
“I was grappling with it in my own mind. We were trying to figure out what to do with it,” said Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr.
In fact, Bocchini says he feels sorry that Anthony Campbell, 52, Rider’s dean of students, and Ada Badgley, 31, the university’s director of Greek life, had to face indictments. But he says the system left him no choice.
“I said, ‘Look, I have a grand jury, a legally constituted body, recognized by the courts, that comes back with this indictment. We have to look at this thoroughly. This is a highly sensitive case,”‘ Bocchini said.
But critics point out that prosecutors instructed the grand jury _ made up of 23 laypeople _ and provided the evidence it saw. And if Bocchini really thought the resulting charges were questionable, critics say he held off too long to drop them.
“He took up the court’s time. He does not get an A plus for the way he handled this,” said Hank Nuwer, an expert on hazing cases who teaches journalism at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind.
Nuwer said Bocchini’s handling of the case may actually make other prosecutors leery about indicting university officials involved with campus crimes.
The outcome has caused further grief for the family of Gary DeVercelly Jr., the 18-year-old fraternity pledge from Long Beach, Calif., who died of alcohol poisoning.
“The family’s upset that it now appears none of the wrongdoers will face any serious criminal consequences for their role in the death of their son,” said Doug Fierberg, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who’s been retained by DeVercelly’s family.
DeVercelly had a blood-alcohol level of 0.426 percent, or more than five times the Garden State’s legal limit for driving, when he was pronounced dead March 30, authorities have said.
DeVercelly died after a Phi Kappa Tau house party that prosecutors have described as a special event, in which pledges would drink large quantities of hard liquor with fraternity brothers.
The student’s death, and the evidence provided by prosecutors, ended up drawing a strong response from the grand jury.
“They were upset with the university. This was an emotional case,” Bocchini now says.
Three weeks after he announced the indictments, Bocchini asked a judge to dismiss the counts against the Campbell and Badgley.
Former state attorney general John Farmer Jr. thinks three weeks may have been a long time to wait before trying to get the counts dismissed.
“Being accused is irreparable damage to someone’ life and you need to resolve this as quickly as possible,” Farmer said.
Campbell’s lawyer, Rocco Cipparone Jr., wishes Bocchini had publicized the case in a different way.
“The result was the right result. But the process was something no one wants to go through, especially in a high profile way,” Cipparone said.
But Badgley’s lawyer, David Laigaie, thought Bocchini’s office handled the case appropriately overall.
“It was an investigative grand jury. There’s a limit to a prosecutor’s ability to instruct a grand jury to charge or not to charge,” Laigaie said.
Mitch Crane, a former municipal judge in Pennsylvania and expert on college hazing cases, also didn’t see any obvious problems with the way the Rider case was handled. Even though the charges against the administrators were dropped, he still thought the case sent a message that administrators might be criminally responsible for the actions of their students.
“In student affairs, there’s a great deal of fear throughout the country that, ‘Gee, I could be arrested and charged for something I wasn’t directly involved with,”‘ Crane said. “I don’t think the fact these charges were dropped against the dean and the Greek adviser will change that.”