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Update: investigation dropped into alleged hate crime

Natalie Kolb
Image used with permission of The State News

Update: September 27, 2012 1:15 pm 

The Ingham county prosecutor won't press any charges in the alleged assault and hate crime involving MSU student Zachary Tennen - and Tennen's family supports that call.

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — No charges will be brought following an investigation into an assault on a Michigan State University student who claimed he was punched and had his jaw broken because he's Jewish, a prosecutor said Thursday.


East Lansing police investigated the Aug. 26 attack on sophomore Zach Tennen, who had said that it was "shameful" that such "religious hatred exists in our country." Police interviewed more than 50 witnesses, Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart J. Dunnings III said, and the prosecutor interviewed some on his own.


"I believe there is no evidence that any ethnic/religious/racial bias was involved in this incident," Dunnings said in a statement.


The report from police had identified one suspect, an 18-year-old Farmington Hills man.

Dunnings on Thursday also released a letter from Henry M. Scharg, lawyer for Tennen's family, dated Monday that said the family "believes justice will be best served by closing this investigation at this time." The letter states that police and the prosecutor conducted a "full and fair" investigation.


Sharg did not respond Thursday to a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Tennen, who is from Franklin in suburban Detroit, underwent jaw surgery. He was punched in the front yard of an East Lansing home as 40 people partied in the backyard, authorities said. Police said two people helped him, put frozen vegetables on his face and got him a cab so he could go to a hospital.

August 29, 2012 12:04 p.m.

What really happened to Zachary Tennen? That’s what police are still trying to determine.  

Media outlets across the nation have called Tennen’s assault a “shocking hate crime,” though cops say there’s no evidence to support that. Meanwhile, the Michigan State University student is recovering from serious injuries, as his parents beg the community to come forward with more information about their son’s attack.

Michigan Radio hasn’t run this story on our air yet, because so many of the details are still hazy. But here's what is clear:  

Tennen is a 19-year-old sophomore who ended up in the hospital in the wee hours of Sunday morning. He suffered severe facial and jaw injuries. He told his parents he’d been attacked at an off-campus party by two men who made “Heil Hitler” gestures. They reportedly asked him if he was Jewish; when he said yes, Tennen says they knocked him unconscious and stapled his mouth shut.

Another disturbing detail: Tennen told the press that onlookers at the party stood by and watched. “I assumed someone would help me. But after some guys at the house basically kicked me out, I had to get a cab." 

Yet police say witnesses have a different recollection of the night. East Lansing Police Captain John Murphy spoke with Michigan Radio. “To be perfectly clear, we don’t think the victim is lying. But between what he’s told us and what several witnesses have told us, it doesn’t appear to have risen to the level of the hate crime.”

Murphy says ultimately, determining what is and isn’t a hate crime is the county prosecutor’s job. And while he says police can’t go into details until an arrest is made, witnesses report seeing a “confrontation” – but no hate crime.

“The two witnesses that watched the specific punch said that [Tennen] was standing in the driveway, having some sort of confrontation, and he got punched one time in the mouth or in the face area and fell down,” says Murphy. “Those witnesses then, after the suspect and the other person left, they went over and helped him and eventually got him to the hospital.”

Murphy says most of the party was happening behind the house on the 500 block of Spartan Avenue around 1:30 am Sunday. Of the 40 or so people there, only a few were out front where Tennen was assaulted, says Murphy.

As for Tennen’s mouth being stapled shut, Captain Murphy says no one saw that either.

“One of the witnesses said that when [Tennen] got up off the ground, he said something about a staple being in his mouth. Both the victim and the witness said the victim pulled out a small piece of metal that could have been a staple outside of his mouth. Another problem is that there’s no explanation of how that got there. The witness didn’t see anybody with a staple, they didn’t see anybody with a stapler.”

While college students at a late-night party are hardly the best imaginable witnesses, there do seem to be some sizeable disparities here: what about Tennen’s reports  of “Heil Hitler” gestures? How could witnesses see the punch, but not the stapler, assuming there was one?  

Captain Murphy says these are questions they can’t answer yet.

“I think [Tennen’s] probably being truthful in the stuff he said. He said they asked [him] if [he] was Jewish, and then when he said yes, he got hit. I have no way of saying that never happened. Also nobody else heard that, that we can find anyway. So I can’t say he made it up or anything.”

But Murphy says Tennen’s original recounting the attack may be mistaken. “I question maybe the time between the statement and between him getting hit. But we can’t narrow that down because we haven’t found anybody who can help us with that.”

Police do have a suspect, but so far, no arrest has been made. ““We’ve located and identified one suspect, an 18-year-old Farmington Hills man. He is not in custody right now, because we’ve got a couple other witnesses that we need to speak with before we send this thing to the prosecutor to request charges on this guy. So he’s been identified, he’s been interviewed by our detectives, hopefully we’ll be requesting charges this week and hopefully tomorrow. The sooner the better.”

“The biggest question when dealing with stuff with a hate crime type charge is the motive. Was he assaulted because of his Jewish faith, or was he assaulted for some other reason?" asks Murphy.  "I mean either way, the one thing that’s for sure is he was assaulted and it was serious and he got hurt pretty bad. But that whole motive thing is what we’re struggling with, because of all these other witness statements that we got.”

Michigan Radio has requested an interview with the Tennen family, but the request was not returned at the time of filing. We'll keep updating this story as events unfold.  

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.