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Attorney Randall Sorrels: Electronic Evidence Wins Family of Hazing Victim $4.2 M

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Houston, TXThe morning after Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath died from alcohol poisoning his fraternity brothers had a meeting. They agreed to destroy all the pictures and video taken the night before at a hazing party where Phoummarath and six others had been ordered to consume dangerous amounts of alcohol as part of an initiation ceremony. However, as attorney Randall Sorrels discovered, it is difficult for people to hide their tracks in the digital world.

"The morning after the party, Jack's parents went to the fraternity house to find out what had happened, and no one would answer the door," says Sorrels. "There was a definite effort by these young men to cover up what they had done."

In the weeks that followed, the parents of 18-year-old Jack Phoummarath retained the law firm of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels & Friend to seek compensation for their son's death. The first job was to find who was there, and what they did that night in the fall of 2005.

"I think the biggest challenge was trying to determine what happened that night because there were specific instructions to destroy all the evidence," says Sorrells.

Sorrels and his colleagues decided to look at Jack's 'My Space' account. There, they found dozens of tributes and memorial messages left for the University of Texas student. "We used those names to track down people, and track down evidence," Sorrels says. "Sure enough, we found that not all the video and pictures had been destroyed."

The fraternity brothers either had forgotten about, or were unable to control every piece of potential evidence from that night. "We found many of the women who were there had cameras," Sorrel says, "and they were not at the meeting the next morning. As a result we were able to piece together most of the night with photos."

Sorrels even found video of Phoummarath, as he lay unconscious. His blood alcohol level was 5 times the legal limit. His fraternity brothers found his state not alarming, but humorous. The next step was to get people to identify who was in the pictures. As Sorrels and his colleagues went through the process, they also found more people with photos. "It was definitely like putting a puzzle together, piece by piece," Sorrels adds.

At his office in Houston, Sorrels assembled a giant database and began cross-referencing names, times and people. "We had a couple of people say, 'oh, I wasn't there', but we had their pictures. Then they'd say 'oh yes, now that I think about it, I was there,'" says Sorrels.

"People changed their stories as the pictures came out," says Sorrels. "Once we identified them as defendants, they became more cooperative. They were ready to tell the truth and produced more pictures and more videos."

In the final analysis, Sorrels and his colleagues identified 99 different defendants in the case; most of them were Jack Phoummarath's fraternity brothers.

On July 18, 2008, the case was settled and the family of Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath was awarded $4.2 million. Some of that money will go towards promoting "anti-hazing" educational material.

Criminal charges were laid against three of the fraternity members involved in Phoummarath's death. In September, they pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of hazing and were given two years of deferred adjudication, a form of probation.

The Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Texas has been banned until 2011.

Hazing is illegal in the state of Texas and in most other places. However, it is still widely practiced. The fine line between hazing and lethal force has killed dozens of students at American colleges and universities.

Randall Sorrels and his firm now have a new special area of practice—hazing litigation. He regularly fields calls from other lawyers asking how to go about gathering evidence, representing families and identifying defendants using electronic evidence in hazing cases. Hazers, beware.

Randall Sorrels is a graduate of the South Texas College of Law in Houston, Texas (1987). He earned a B.A. at the Houston Baptist University (1984). He is a partner with Abraham,Watkins,Nichols,Sorrel & Friend in Houston, Texas.

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