Five men accused of participating in or failing to stop a brutal fraternity hazing ritual that killed a New York City college student were arraigned Thursday on murder charges, identified by police as the most culpable of 37 suspects in the case.
The suspects, all from Queens, appeared in a northeastern Pennsylvania courtroom nearly two years after the death of Chun "Michael" Deng. A magistrate set bail at $500,000 for four of the suspects and $150,000 for the fifth. All but one posted bond.
Police said fraternity members at Pi Delta Psi physically abused Deng, a Baruch College student, then tried to cover it up as the 19-year-old lay dying in their rented house in the Pocono Mountains, about 100 miles west of New York.
Defense lawyers called Deng's death a tragedy but said their clients didn't intend to kill him, characterizing it as a fraternity prank gone horribly awry.
"They're college kids," said Robert Saurman, attorney for defendant Kenny Kwan, 26. "Something bad happened. They did not know how to react. That is not the same as a crime."
Kwan left the courtroom and broke down crying ahead of his arraignment. He was consoled by another defendant, Charles Lai, 24.
The other suspects arraigned Thursday were Raymond Lam, 22; Sheldon Wong, 23; and Daniel Li, 23. Each faces charges of third-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, aggravated and simple assault, hindering apprehension, hazing and conspiracy. Lai and Kwan also face drug charges.
The fraternity itself is charged with murder, and 32 other suspects face less serious charges.
"The fraternity obviously is disappointed, vastly, at the allegations in the criminal complaints, that their members would engage in conduct like this," said Wes Niemoczynski, Pi Delta Psi's attorney, who represented the fraternity at its arraignment. The fraternity could face a fine if convicted.
Police say fraternity members blindfolded Deng, forced him to wear a heavy backpack and then repeatedly tackled him during the hazing ritual, known as glass ceiling. Deng fell unconscious and was carried inside the house while fraternity members changed his clothes and searched online for information about his symptoms, waiting an hour before taking him to the hospital, according to court documents. Deng, who suffered a brain injury, died a day later.
Deng was the last of several pledges to be hazed that weekend. Police have said he was treated more harshly than the others, though they haven't said why.
Interviewed by police, Li described Deng as "unlucky," according to court documents. Prosecutors on Thursday described Li as the fraternity chapter president and said while he didn't take part in the beating, he was present and failed to stop it. Li was released on $150,000 bail. His attorney declined to comment.
Lawyers for the other defendants argued against what they contended was punitively high bail, saying their clients come from supportive families and didn't pose a flight risk or a threat to the community. Several of the defendants' parents were in court Thursday.
James Swetz, attorney for Lai, told Magisterial District Judge Richard Claypool that the bail requested by the district attorney's office was "simply an attempt to pander to the members of the media" for purposes of "shock value."
But the judge ruled the charges warranted it, saying the students had exhibited "pure poor judgment" that night.
"I'm surprised the DA's office came in as low as they did," Claypool said.
As Lai was taken away in handcuffs, unable to post bond, Swetz filed an emergency petition seeking a bail reduction.
"This is not a murder case. Period," he told reporters outside court.