A day after news broke that plea deals could be coming for the nine men charged with the hazing death of FSU Pi Kappa Phi brother Andrew Coffey, the State Attorney’s Office is staying tight-lipped. This isn’t the first time such negotiations have been made in a hazing case.
Longtime Tallahassee lawyer Chuck Hobbs spent nearly two years as a prosecutor before becoming a defense attorney. He says he is not too young to remember how Florida’s current hazing law changed everything when it was adopted in 2001. The law is named after University of Miami student Chad Meredith, who drowned while trying to swim alongside fraternity brothers after a night of drinking.
“What the Meredith act did was, it removed consent as a defense,” Hobbs said, adding the removal of a consent defense can muddy the process of holding other members of a group accountable.
“See, before the Meredith act, if a young man or a group of young men were charged with hazing someone, a defense attorney like I could go into court and basically say ‘Well wait a minute, victim so an so, is it true that you willingly submitted to participating in these acts because you wanted to be a member of the organization,” Hobbs said. “And if the answer was yes, that’s an absolute defense. That’s been removed now.”
What ends up happening are plea deals like the ones offered by State Attorney Jack Campbell. Campbell is not yet prepared to address media after a public records request by the Tallahassee Democrat outed the plea negotiations.
The deals would see the nine men charged with felony hazing in the death of FSU fraternity pledge Andrew Coffey plead down to misdemeanor charges. They would serve 60 days in either jail or a jail work camp, followed by probation.
Felice Duffy spent more than ten years as a federal prosecutor, and now runs her own practice in Connecticut. She has represented college students accused of hazing offenses. She has a theory on why these trials can result in lesser sentencing.
“You don’t get a lot of criminal hazing trials from my perspective for a number of reasons,” Duffy said. “Many times, people, students can be charged at schools under hazing statutes in what I would call a kind of conspiracy theory type. Which would be charging the whole executive board because they had knowledge that some events were happening, whether they were directly involved or not. And I think that’s a difficult standard in terms of fairness.”
The move to get pleas for lesser charges has some attorneys questioning what might have gone on behind the scenes – left to guess while Campbell stays silent. Hobbs points to what appears, at least on the surface, to be a hasty plea offering.
“The case hasn’t even gone through discovery yet,” Hobbs said. “And by discovery I mean depositions being taken, witnesses being interviewed, none of that has happened and they are already being offered misdemeanors – and there’s a young man who is dead.”
Hobbs has experience with felony hazing litigation, and he knows how difficult it can be to bring higher charges amid what he calls a “culture of silence.”
“I’m also aware that often times what you have in hazing cases are situations whereby people are not necessarily prepared to come forth and testify against other brothers, or members of the band, or whatever the group is in order to help crack the case,” Hobbs said.
One of the fraternity brothers’ defense lawyers also has questions about the move. Attorney Don Pumphrey represents fraternity member Luke Kluttz.
“I think our elected State Attorney is attempting to make a change in a culture. That having been said, I have some concerns about the discovery that’s available and making any plea offers prior to having all the discovery in,” Pumphrey said.
Pumphrey explained procedure in Florida’s courts requires discovery to be delivered within 15 days of the filing of the charging document. He’s asking why the plea offer came before all facts have been reviewed.
“I’m not sure if there’s a financial issue or budget cuts or what’s causing it but, I think it’s prudent for the any person whether it’s a defense attorney or state attorney to make sure they have all the facts and all the discovery before making any offers,” Pumphrey said.
Hobbs, who said he has known Campbell well for much of his life, called him a tough prosecutor and a good trial lawyer. Yet Hobbs can’t help but struggle to understand Campbell making what he called a “light offer” early in the proceedings.