Last November, Michael Starks, an 18-year-old freshman at Utah State University and Sigma Nu pledge, died of alcohol poisoning after a hazing event. On the night of his death, Starks’ future brothers voted to have him "captured" by the sisters of Chi Omega at the house next door. As part of this hazing event, eight of those sisters took Starks to an office campus house where he consumed a lethal dose of vodka in their presence. He later died in his sleep at the Sigma Nu house.
But according to an article yesterday in the Salt Lake Tribune, there are no hazing convictions six months after charges were filed by Cache County against twelve people involved in the incident. Four of the twelve have been sentenced to jail and other punishments have been doled out, but none of them were for violations of Utah’s hazing statute. Four remaining defendants have filed motions with Judge Thomas Willmore to have the charges against them dismissed and if that happens, it does not appear that there will be any hazing convictions resulting from this tragedy. The status of those charged is as follows:
Cody Littlewood, 20, Sigma Nu president, charged with hazing. Motion to dismiss pending.
McKell Miner, 19, Chi Omega member, charged with hazing. Motion to dismiss to be argued Oct. 1.
Alexandra White, 20, Chi Omega member, charged with hazing. Motion to dismiss to be argued Oct. 1.
Mallory Mitchell, 20, Chi Omega member, charged with hazing. Motion to dismiss to be argued Oct 1.
Whitney Miller, 20, Chi Omega member, pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol, hazing dismissed. Had multiple prior alcohol violations. Sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Brittany Packham, 20, Chi Omega member, pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol to a minor, hazing dismissed. Sentencing set for July 20.
Erin Anthony, 22, USU student, charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor. Pleaded guilty and will be sentenced Monday.
Christopher Ammon, 20, Sigma Nu officer, pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol, hazing dismissed. Fourteen days in jail.
Grant Barney, 23, Sigma Nu member, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charge, hazing count dismissed. Eight days in jail.
Sadie Green, 19, entered a plea in abeyance to hazing. No jail.
Timothy Weber, 25, Sigma Nu’s vice president, charges dismissed
Brittany Bell, 21, Chi Omega member, charges dismissed
Cecily Kiss, 19, Chi Omega member, charges dismissed
Utah is one of 44 states that has enacted a hazing statute. The Utah statute is in the Utah Code at section 76-5-107.5:
76-5-107.5. Prohibition of "hazing" — Definitions — Penalties.
(1) A person is guilty of hazing if that person intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly commits an act or causes another to commit an act that:
(a) (i) endangers the mental or physical health or safety of another;
(ii) involves any brutality of a physical nature such as whipping, beating, branding, calisthenics, bruising, electric shocking, placing of a harmful substance on the body, or exposure to the elements;
(iii) involves consumption of any food, liquor, drug, or other substance or any other physical activity that endangers the mental or physical health and safety of an individual; or
(iv) involves any activity that would subject the individual to extreme mental stress, such as sleep deprivation, extended isolation from social contact, or conduct that subjects another to extreme embarrassment, shame, or humiliation; and
(b) (i) is for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, holding office in, or as a condition for continued membership in any organization; or
(ii) if the actor knew that the victim is a member of or candidate for membership with a school team or school organization to which the actor belongs or did belong within the preceding two years.
(2) It is not a defense to prosecution of hazing that a person under 21, against whom the hazing was directed, consented to or acquiesced in the hazing activity.
(3) An actor who hazes another is guilty of a:
(a) class B misdemeanor if there are no aggravating circumstances;
(b) class A misdemeanor if the act involves the operation or other use of a motor vehicle;
(c) third degree felony if the act involves the use of a dangerous weapon as defined in Section 76-1-601;
(d) third degree felony if the hazing results in serious bodily injury to a person; or
(e) second degree felony if hazing under Subsection (3)(d) involves the use of a dangerous weapon as defined in Section 76-1-601.
(4) A person who in good faith reports or participates in reporting of an alleged hazing is not subject to any civil or criminal liability regarding the reporting.
(5) (a) This section does not apply to military training or other official military activities.
(b) Military conduct is governed by Title 39, Chapter 6, Utah Code of Military Justice.
(6) (a) A prosecution under this section does not bar a prosecution of the actor for:
(i) any other offense for which the actor may be liable as a party for conduct committed by the person hazed; or
(ii) any offense, caused in the course of the hazing, that the actor commits against the person who is hazed.
(b) Under Subsection (6)(a)(i) a person may be separately punished, both for the hazing offense and the conduct committed by the person hazed.
(c) Under Subsection (6)(a)(ii) a person may not be punished both for hazing and for the other offense, but shall be punished for the offense carrying the greater maximum penalty.
The criticism of the statute is that it is too broad and is unconstitutionally vague because it may go so far as to criminalize constitutionally protected activities. If that is the case, the statute should be reviewed immediately and revised to address the constitutional concerns so that in the future when hazing incidences result in injury or death, there are serious consequences for those involved. And for more information on hazing and how to stop it, go to resources like StopHazing.org.
Bret Hanna of Wrona DuBois in Utah, focuses exclusively on litigating plaintiffs’ medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. He has represented clients in state and federal courts, in mediations, and in administrative proceedings in Michigan and Utah since 1991.