NJ College Alcohol Hazing Death Charges Dismissed; Reputations Can't Be Restored As Easily
An Aug. 3, 2007 indictment on aggravated hazing charges instantly branded two Rider University administrators as criminal facilitators in connection with the alcohol-poisoning death of a fraternity pledge. The news appeared across the U.S. and around the world.
The two apparently weren't present (or culpable) in the unfortunate March 2007 death of a freshman pledge from California. But they were very present in the crosshairs of Joseph L. Bocchini Jr., Mercer County, New Jersey's chief law enforcer. Then, on Oct. 28th Bocchini was forced to dismiss the charges.
In a scene right out of the film, "Casa Blanca," when Claude Raines feigns shock at the gambling going on at Rick's Cafe, Bocchini told a reporter after the dismissal hearing that he was "taken aback" at the time of indictment when he saw that two respected administrators, one of whom is the dean of students, had been charged.
Unfortunately, it apparently took three weeks for Bocchini to get over the shock and be "taken aforward," since he didn't get around to asking for the charges to be dismissed until Aug. 27th. The next day a judge agreed to dismiss the two university administrators from the case.
But dismissing charges in court can't quash the bad reputation these two will carry with them forever, thanks to the Internet, as Kevin Coughlin's article noted in today’s Newark Star-Ledger.
I believe I was the first person to comply with a federal judge’s order to remove a document from the Internet. In that case it was a properly filed and stamped sentencing memo in a high-profile matter that was given to me for posting by an Assistant U.S. Attorney. The AUSA was ordered and as soon as I heard it was removed immediately from the former njusao.org. (Wired.com wrote about it). The awesome and latent power of the World Wide Web was obvious even then.
Bocchini, in commenting about the dismissal, told a reporter that a runaway grand jury was responsible. Absent from any comment between August 3rd and 27th were any reservations about the indictment, even off the record. Instead Bocchini held press events when the indictment was returned, telling the AP in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The ramifications of this for colleges and universities in New Jersey, and across the country, is that it will send some kind of message that the standards of college life, when it relates to alcohol, need to be policed carefully."
Last week, Bocchini owed the two administrators a much stronger retraction than telling reporters after the hearing, according to the New Jersey Law Journal, “…that he was not convinced a jury could have been persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt about the administrators' guilt.”
Instead he should have stepped up and totally exonerated the two Rider administrators from any criminal action. For comparison (the Duke charges and the Rider allegations are worlds apart) note how Attorney General Roy Cooper of North Carolina made it clear that lacrosse players Finnerty, Evans and Seligman were innocent, stating, among other things, "We believe that these cases were the tragic result of a rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations." Did that happen in Mercer County, too? [On Friday, August 31st former DA Mike Nifong was found guilty of criminal contempt and sentenced to a day of imprisonment.]
Last week I wrote a tough Commentary about the Rider defendants’ plight and the tepid way in which they were absolved by Bocchini. It's scheduled to run on the OpEd page of Tuesday's Times of Trenton, the capitol city broadsheet that's been on top of this story since day one, also a Newhouse paper like the Star-Ledger.
My zeal for making sure that case milestones are strategically reported is no secret to attorneys with whom I worked at the U.S. Attorney's Office and later at the N.J. (State) Division of Criminal Justice, and for law firms who today rely on PRforLAW, LLC. The need to pinpoint downstream readers is one of the reasons I developed one of the first Web sites of its kind for prosecutors many Internet years ago.
But ruining someone's reputation should never be the goal or unintended result of a prosecutor's efforts. Will this case become a poster child for the defense bar's claims of grand jury abuse?