A Texas college student who wasn’t indicted last year for his role in the hazing death of a fraternity pledge tearfully told police two days after the incident that he was responsible for the death, according to an audio tape obtained by The Associated Press.
“I killed him. It’s my fault,” Prairie View A&M University student Marvin Jackson said as he sobbed uncontrollably during an interview with police investigating the death of Phi Beta Sigma pledge Donnie Wade II.
The previously unreleased tape raises fresh questions about a Waller County grand jury’s decision not to indict Jackson, the fraternity’s membership chairman, and adds fuel to a growing sentiment among anti-hazing advocates that criminal authorities are sloughing off such cases.
Wade’s father says he was unaware of Jackson’s statements and called them surprising. He says he has long felt that criminal charges should have been filed.
“I just feel like they could have charged (the fraternity) with something, even if it was just failure to stop and render aid,” Donnie Wade Sr. says.
Wade collapsed and died on Oct. 20, 2009, after he and other pledges engaged in a series of pre-dawn exercises on the Hempstead High School track. Instead of calling for an ambulance, a group of pledges drove Wade to a hospital 30 miles away, where he was pronounced dead.
An autopsy found that the 20-year-old student from Dallas suffered from acute exertional rhabdomyolysis, a rare condition known to be aggravated by intense physical exercise.
The grand jury, meeting in October, declined to indict Jackson even though Prairie View A&M determined last April that the pledges were subjected to a hazing ritual known as Physical Training, or PT, that included push-ups, sit-ups, running in place, squats, running the bleachers and other exercises.
The historically Black university 45 miles northwest of Houston ruled that the fraternity violated the school’s anti-hazing rules and suspended it for three years.
In Texas, hazing that leads to death is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The law defines hazing as an intentional, knowing or reckless act that endangers a student’s health or safety for the purpose of gaining membership in an organization. Calisthenics can be considered hazing, according to the law.
Waller County Assistant District Attorney Fred Edwards, who presented the case to the grand jury, says all the evidence was offered without comment from his office, the county’s standard procedure for suspicious deaths.
“We throw out everything we have, and (grand jurors) make their decision,” he says. “I’m not going to say one way or another whether I think it’s a good decision, but it’s the decision they made.”
Jackson’s attorney, Matt Skillern of Houston, declined to comment.
Hank Nuwer, a nationally known hazing expert and author, says hazing episodes frequently don’t lead to criminal charges. For that reason, Nuwer says he’s pushing for a federal law targeting hazing.
“So often, the case is dropped, the families are devastated, and then the next (incident) occurs,” he says.
The tape of Jackson’s interview was obtained by the AP along with other material from the police investigative file under the Texas Public Information Act.
Throughout the 90-minute interview, the 26-year-old former member of the Prairie View A&M track team said the exercise regimen, which began at 5 a.m., was strictly voluntary and was initiated by the pledges. He said he merely participated in the workout. However, pledges told police they understood PT to be a mandatory part of their initiation and that Jackson directed it.
As investigators expressed skepticism, Jackson became emotional, repeatedly saying, “It’s my fault.”
At one point, he asked the investigators what he should do. They told him to continue going to school.
“I can’t do that,” he replied. “I know that I killed him. I can’t do that.”
When the investigators asked Jackson why he kept saying he killed Wade, he replied:
“Because that’s what it all points to. He was running with me because he wanted to. He wanted to be me. Even if he wanted to stop, he wasn’t going to tell me he wanted to stop. He wasn’t going to show weakness.”