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Ex-college dean, on trial in New York, commits suicide

By Jessica Dye

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former dean of St. John's University on trial on charges she forced students to perform menial labor to keep their scholarships was found dead on Tuesday in an apparent suicide.

Cecilia Chang, 59, was found in her Queens, New York, home by police, her attorney Joel Cohen told U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson in Brooklyn. The cause of death was still being determined, but it appeared she killed herself, Cohen said.

She faced up to 20 years in prison on the forced labor charge.

Chang's death came day after she took the stand to defend herself against claims that from at least 2007 until 2010 she threatened to withhold scholarship funds unless students made her food, cleaned her house and performed other chores. Chang also was charged with bribery and filing false tax returns.

The trial, which began on October 9, was scheduled to continue Tuesday, but Johnson sent jurors home after receiving word that Chang's body had been identified by one of her tenants.

On Monday, during testimony that at times elicited shock and laughter from observers, Chang admitted she had charged personal items to the school and asked students to wash her clothes. She denied she had ever broken the law.

Chang had been indicted separately in Queens state court for allegedly embezzling $1 million from the school. A hearing was scheduled in that case for November 13, her lawyers said.

After receiving word of Chang's death, the judge speculated she had taken the stand in order to "get it off her chest."

"We never know how an individual will handle the pressure," Johnson said, calling her apparent suicide a "Shakespearean tragedy."

Chang was St. John's dean of Asian studies from 1982 until 2010 and vice president of international relations from 1992 until 2010.

Attorneys for Chang called her a "prolific fund raiser and tireless advocate for her beloved Asian Studies Program at the university."

"Her death today is a sad ending to a complex human drama," the lawyers said in a statement.

St. John's University said in a statement the school was saddened to learn of Chang's death and asked the university community to pray for her and her family.

Prosecutors declined to comment.

(Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Cynthia Osterman)

(This story was refiled to remove extraneous words in the headline)

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