Judge Throws Out Most Serious Charges in Penn State Hazing Death Case

Timothy Piazza, center, with his parents Evelyn and James Piazza. The most serious charges against Penn State fraternity members accused in his death were dismissed on Friday.
Patrick Carns, via Associated Press

A Pennsylvania judge on Friday dismissed the most serious charges against eight Penn State fraternity members indicted in the hazing death of a 19-year-old student, sharply and suddenly defanging prosecutors and setting the stage for a new legal battle in the high-profile case.

After a pretrial hearing that had stretched for days, Magisterial District Judge Allen W. Sinclair appeared Friday morning and, over the course of minutes, orally dismissed one serious charge after another — including involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and simple assault — against the men who faced them.

Judge Sinclair, who did not explain his reasoning, left intact the lesser charges, including recklessly endangering another person, hazing and furnishing alcohol to a minor. The men face trial on those charges, but the ruling, if it stands, vastly reduces the likelihood that any of the defendants will go to jail.

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Stacy Parks Miller, the district attorney for Centre County, who had called the death “heart wrenching and incomprehensible,” said Friday that the ruling was an “error of law” and vowed to refile at least the involuntary manslaughter charges before a different judge.

“This was disappointing, unexpected and in our view, not supported by the evidence,” Ms. Miller said in a statement.

The death of the 19-year-old, Timothy Piazza, an engineering student from Lebanon, N.J., in February, after an initiation at the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi, stunned a campus where fraternities are woven deep into the school’s social life.

Mr. Piazza, prosecutors said, was participating in a drinking gantlet in which fraternity pledges drank several kinds of alcohol, and he became intoxicated. At some point, they said, Mr. Piazza tumbled down a flight of stairs.

Chilling video played in court this year showed the fraternity brothers placing his limp body on the couch, plugging their nose at the smell of his vomit, and arguing over what to do. His chest was bruised and his eyes were shut, the indictment said. The brothers hovered over him for much of the night, and he eventually awakened, then passed out again.

The fraternity members did not call for an ambulance until 10:48 a.m. on Feb. 3, court documents said — nearly 12 hours after Mr. Piazza’s ordeal began.

After Mr. Piazza’s death, Beta Theta Pi was banned from campus and the university’s president, Eric Barron, established new restrictions for Greek organizations, including the banning of liquor and beer kegs. And then, after a two-and-a-half month investigation, a grand jury handed down a sprawling indictment against 18 students. Eight faced involuntary manslaughter charges, and 10 others faced lesser charges.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Jess Bidgood

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