Using court to send a message

DA should bring the Betas case to a plea-bargain end

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes regularly to the Chico News & Review.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey, an effective prosecutor with much power, sometimes needs to mix that power with prudence. Example: the Chico State fraternity hazing case he is prosecuting.

Chico State University withdrew recognition for Beta Theta Pi after it allegedly hazed 13 pledges in spring 2007. That action, which also suspended the Beta president and vice president for one semester, clearly sent a zero-tolerance message. Its point made, the university will let the Betas reapply for good-standing status next spring.

But in July 2007, Ramsey decided to prosecute these officers plus the events coordinator (a Butte College student) on misdemeanor hazing charges under Matt’s Law, saying the pledges had been forced to crawl through mud, stand in ice water, and do calisthenics. Matt’s Law went on the state books in 2006 after Matthew Carrington, a 21-year-old CSUC student, died in a much publicized water hazing incident at an unrecognized Chico fraternity in February 2005.

Early on each pledge signed under oath that he had not been subject to acts that could lead to “serious bodily injury,” as defined in Matt’s Law, and accepted one dollar from each defendant to compromise, and thus nullify, the case from a civil standpoint. Without a victim, the case lacked merit.

The prosecution countered with a legal technicality: there’s no need for a living, breathing victim because all crimes are considered acts against the people, so the state is the victim. The judge bought this abstract reasoning. Because the defendants didn’t consider the position realistic, they moved to the 3rd District Court of Appeals, which ruled last fall against dismissing the charges. That means an April trial.

Question: Why are scarce county resources and court time being used on such a flimsy case of Greek hijinks? After all, the two Beta officers have already been punished by losing school time, study product, and tuition. What more do they logically deserve since none of the 13 pledges suffered any physical injury?

The court action seeking non-felony convictions with fines and loss of freedom in jail only smacks of overkill and trivializes Matt’s Law. Sure, this is the first case in the state to be prosecuted under Matt’s Law, and it’s in Chico, but that’s grandstanding, which cheapens any conviction and leaves a poor legal precedent.

Further, the legal folderol risks making sympathetic figures out of the fraternity men, no easy task in Chico. The DA should be able to work out some deal with the Betas for a win-win conclusion. Such a deal would hopefully let the punishment fit the crime rather than misuse the court to send a message.