Ithaca, N.Y. – On the morning of Feb. 25, 2011, Cornell sophomore and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother George Desdunes was found unresponsive on a couch. He died a few hours later.

Police quickly determined that Desdunes’ death followed a fraternity hazing ritual in which the aspiring doctor was made to drink several shots of vodka.

The subsequent criminal and civil trials have drawn national attention, led to significant reforms at Cornell and brought to public view the grief of a mother who has lost her son.

Here’s everything you need to know about the case in 6 questions.

1 – Was this a little partying gone too far or something more serious?
2 – Wow, that’s terrible. What did the Tompkins County District Attorney do about it?
3 – I don’t get it. Why weren’t they charged with manslaughter?
4 – I guess that makes sense. But you mean to tell me the fraternity brothers faced no consequences?
5 – You say some of the SAE brothers stayed on campus. They never did anything like this again, right?
6 – How did the death change Cornell?

(Did we miss your question? If so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.)

1 – Was this a little partying gone too far or something more serious?

Something far more serious.

As was quickly revealed after Desdunes’ death, he was hazed that night as part of a ritual known as a “reverse kidnapping.” Desdunes was bound by zip-ties, blindfolded, forced to sing songs “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent, quizzed on fraternity folklore and made to drink copious amounts of vodka, according to court documents.

Desdunes’ blood alcohol content was .409 – more than five times the legal limit – at the time of his death.

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Back to the questions

2 – Wow, that’s terrible. What did the Tompkins County District Attorney do about it?

Three fraternity brothers who kidnapped Desdunes – freshmen Max Haskin, Ben Mann and Edward Williams – were charged with first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child. All three were later acquitted on all criminal charges.

In October 2012, Judge Judith Rossiter fined the fraternity $12,000 after it was found guilty on three similar misdemeanor charges. No representative from the fraternity, by then banned by Cornell, attended the hearing.

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3 – I don’t get it. Why weren’t they charged with manslaughter?

Manslaughter is defined in NY State as the intentional killing of another human being. There was no evidence of this, lawyers said.

The defendants argued that Desdunes had a prior medical condition that exacerbated the effects of the alcohol and that he could have stopped the hazing ritual at any point. Additionally, several witnesses said Desdunes had been seen drinking heavily for several hours earlier that night.

The court  “determined without any hesitation or equivocation that these guys are innocent,” lawyer for the defendants Raymond M. Schlather said after the trial, according to The New York Times.

“…According to lawyers in the case, the judge found that Mr. Desdunes had been drinking heavily before encountering the defendants and that they could not have known how much alcohol he had already consumed,” The Times reported.

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4 – I guess that makes sense. But you mean to tell me the fraternity brothers faced no consequences?

Sort of. Desdunes’ mother has launched a $25 million lawsuit against the fraternity and dozens of its members that is still winding its way through the court system. Several of them also left Cornell.

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5 – You say some of the SAE brothers stayed on campus. They never did anything like this again, right?
Within a year of Desdunes’ death, 16 former recruits at SAE joined another fraternity at Cornell named Tau Kappa Epsilon.

TKE, however, was kicked off campus when the fraternity held an event that led to the alcohol-related hospitalization of a freshman. University officials found that the TKE members had failed to care for the freshman’s safety, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.

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6 – How did the death change Cornell?

Cornell President David Skorton published an article in the New York Times after Desdunes’ death arguing fraternities and sororities “should end pledging across all campuses.”

After the death, Cornell accelerated changes to its Greek system – including shortened periods for new members. Several Cornell fraternities have been quickly suspended or kicked off campus following reports of hazing. (Read more about Skorton’s response to Desdunes’ death.)

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.