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Content warning: This article contains the use of graphic sexual language.
Peter Chen, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, appeared in Michigan’s 15th District Court on July 1 for a preliminary examination hearing for criminal felony charges of sexual misconduct. At the hearing, the court found probable cause to believe Chen committed the charged crimes, and his case was handed over for trial in the 22nd Circuit Court of Washtenaw County.
Chen is being charged with criminal sexual conduct of the first degree, which includes sexual penetration with a victim under the age of 13, after being arrested on Jan. 28 by the Ann Arbor Police Department. If convicted, Chen could face life in prison.
According to the AAPD, the victim — a member of a robotics team Chen coached — was 11 years old when the assaults allegedly began in April 2017. The incidents allegedly occurred at Chen’s home through 2018.
15th District Court Judge Miriam Perry oversaw the July 1 hearing, which was previously postponed several times. In a March 4 hearing that was ultimately rescheduled due to evidentiary delays, the court ordered that, although Chen’s pretrial release form prohibited contact with minors, Chen would be allowed to see his children with the supervision of another adult.
Preliminary examination hearings are held to determine if the prosecution can show the court there was probable cause to believe a crime was committed by the defendant, although the standard of proof is lower than a trial. Once the probable cause standard is met, a trial date is set.
In an email to The Michigan Daily, Victoria Burton-Harris, the Washtenaw County Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, confirmed the results of the preliminary examination.
“Last week, Mr. Chen appeared for a preliminary examination … At the exam, Judge Perry found probable cause existed to believe the crime of Criminal Sexual Conduct — 1st Degree occurred, and probable cause existed to believe that Mr. Chen, himself, committed that crime,” Burton-Harris wrote. “The case was bound over for trial and shall proceed through the Circuit Court.”
The law firm Smith Lehman, which specializes in criminal sexual conduct allegations, is representing Chen. Shannon Smith, an attorney at the firm, represented the now-convicted Larry Nassar, who faced allegations of sexual abuse from more than 150 women during his time as a USA National Gymnastics team doctor and professor at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.
In January 2021 in a statement to The Daily, Mariell Lehman, an attorney at Smith Lehman, said Chen denied the allegations.
“On January 26, 2021, Mr. Chen was made aware of the criminal sexual conduct allegations that had been made against him. He completely denies the allegations and has cooperated fully with (AAPD) to assist them in their investigation,” Lehman wrote. “Mr. Chen is confident that the truth will prevail and that he will be exonerated fully. Mr. Chen thanks the numerous people who have reached out in support of him over the last few days.”
Smith Lehman did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the outcome of the preliminary examination.
News of the allegations against Chen shocked the U-M community, with many students expressing confusion and anger at the continuing controversy and alleged misconduct within the Computer Science Engineering department. Echoing the sentiments of students, CSE faculty wrote an open letter outlining changes they feel the department and the University should take to “earn back trust from students and community members.”
In a Jan. 28 email to The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald has stated there is no indication Chen’s alleged actions are connected to his work at the University.
“Peter Chen was arraigned on a criminal charge Wednesday and immediately placed on administrative leave,” Fitzgerald said. “The investigation is being handled by Ann Arbor Police.”
The charges against Chen come less than a year after allegations of sexual misconduct against CSE professor Jason Mars, who taught a class during the Winter 2021 semester, sparking outrage from students and calls for his removal.
Chen was named interim chair of CSE following the resignation of Brian Noble, who abruptly resigned last February, citing his relationship with Mars. Chen stepped down from the role only six months later, citing “personal reasons.”
University alum Chris Combs took two of Chen’s courses when he was at the University and attended the same church as Chen, where he got to know Chen’s family.
“It’s a very horrible situation where someone who, on the one hand, so many students looked up to and respected, may have done something truly evil,” Combs told The Daily in January. “When I saw the email I was like, this has to be a typo or something, this is just crazy. I just wanted to read through the email three or four times to just process what they were saying and accept it.”
Engineering junior James Vidano was enrolled in Chen’s EECS 482 class earlier this year and was shocked to learn about the allegations.
“In class, we talked about him as being a super smart, legendary figure who designs computer science courses and just knows an insane amount about the whole computer science world,” Vidano told The Daily in January. “It was really surprising, it was the last person we (would) possibly expect to be in this situation.”
In a 2006 educational technology symposium hosted by MIT and Microsoft Research, a biography described Chen as someone who “loves to teach and supplements university teaching by teaching children at church and home-schooling his three children in math and science.”
In an email to The Daily, Burton-Harris said the case has been assigned to Judge Darlene O’Brien, but a trial date has not been determined at the time of publication.
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