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Tompkins County DA Defends Decisions to Not Pursue Hazing Charges


In our last blog on the Antonio Tsialas case, we announced our settlement with Cornell University, the terms of which required them to turn over all the findings from their investigation. After reading over 155 pages of investigative documents, we learned for the first time that the Cornell police had received a report from a student who overheard a conversation at a party that Antonio’s body was thrown into the gorge where he was found which, if true, would be explosive new evidence.

When the Cornell PD followed up, however, those who made the overheard remarks denied having said it, and that was the end of it. That lead was never followed up any further. Given the seriousness of this, we have called for the Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten to convene a grand jury to compel recalcitrant witnesses to testify and to also charge those responsible for the event under New York’s hazing law as a way to pressure them to talk. To date, however, he is refusing to do either.

The District Attorney Defends Inaction

In The Ithaca Journal article that came out this week, DA Van Houten defends his decision to forgo pressing charges against members of Phi Kappa Psi, saying "if there was evidence of foul play or criminal activity that could have caused his death, that could have been the subject of criminal charges." However, we believe that his reasoning misses the point. Hazing is a crime in New York, so he can move forward with those charges now, and when witnesses refuse to talk, grand juries are often necessary to get that testimony.

To require that you first have the evidence before you convene a grand jury is putting the cart before the horse, as the saying goes. Given that a Cornell student was heard saying Antonio's body was thrown into the gorge should be more than enough justification to convene a grand jury.

"We believe there are students out there who know something, but they won't talk, there is a conspiracy of silence on all of this and as a result we don't have the information about how or why Antonio died," David Bianchi said in an interview last week.

District Attorney Says "People Don't Have to Talk to Police"

Mr. Van Houten's defense of his inaction stems from two assertions: that the goal of a criminal hazing charge is not to charge every perpetrator of hazing, and that he was satisfied with the Cornell Police Department's investigation, even though students didn't fully cooperate with Cornell police in many cases.

"I know that Cornell police investigated and interviewed hundreds of individuals, and interviewed anybody who could've possibly known something," Van Houten said, adding that while some students were cooperative, "people don't have to talk to police….there’s this little thing called the Constitution."

We feel strongly that we do not know all there is to know about how and why Antonio died, and no one should be closing this case simply because witnesses who may know what happened refuse to talk. The District Attorney should be using every tool at his disposal to pressure those with knowledge to tell us what happened. That’s his job.

If you know something regarding what happened to Antonio, submit an anonymous tip as soon as possible.