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As the Wilson hazing case nears an end, shades of gray remain

   The defense asserted all along that the prosecution had a weak case against two Wilson High School baseball coaches, and maybe they were right.

   The Niagara County District Attorney's office moved to dismiss the charges Monday, the day a jury was to be selected for the trial of William M. Atlas and Thomas J. Baia.

   They had been charged with child endangerment misdemeanors for allegedly failing to stop a hazing attack on some junior varsity players by varsity players as the team bus drove home from Niagara Falls after a game April 17, 2008.

   Now, they'll get their jobs back, and they've called a news conference for Wednesday. Don't be surprised if the state police take it on the chin there.

   Assistant District Attorney Robert A. Zucco wouldn't say why the charges were dropped - especially now instead of more than a year ago, tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars later, as the Wilson district, in line with its teachers' union contract, paid for the coaches' defense.

   In line with the usual situation in the case, the court files were sealed. Along with the closed-door testimony in the trial of two former players last week, it continues to mean the public will still not know what really happened and whether the state police did their job properly in arresting the coaches, and in charging three players with felony sexual abuse - charges that later were replaced with non-sexual misdemeanor and violation counts.

   Maybe the whole thing was malarkey to begin with. Or was it? A system that covers up the facts in an effort to protect teenage defendants makes it hard to know.

   Terrence M. Connors, attorney for the parents of one of the boys who says he was roughed up, says he will sue the school district by the end of the month. And if that ever goes to trial, well, there's no such thing as youthful offender status in a civil suit.

   Connors insists that something bad happened on that bus, and something bad had been happening in Wilson baseball for a long time.

   "Our case was never dependent on the criminal case against the coaches. Our focus is to stop practices that should have stopped a long time ago," Connors said Monday. "Those who were charged with the responsibility of protecting those kids failed in their responsibility, and that's from the top down."

   Zucco tried to enter evidence that hazing had been going on in Wilson baseball for years, and the coaches knew about it. In fact, one of the players charged in this case said he was a victim a couple of years ago.

   Town Justice George R. Berger barred that evidence from use at a trial, but as Zucco said in an interview with The News several weeks ago, "Just because the evidence isn't admissible doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

   The rules are different in civil suits. The evidence may well come in. And perhaps, at long last, we'll know whether it was the cops or the ballplayers who were out of control.

-- Thomas J. Prohaska


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