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Judge tosses out the most serious charges in the fraternity hazing death of a Penn State teen

UPDATED: Wed., March 28, 2018

By Marwa Eltagouri Washington Post

A judge for a second time has tossed out the most serious allegations against 11 Pennsylvania State University fraternity brothers who were arrested following the death of fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza last year.

Judge Allen Sinclair dismissed charges of involuntary manslaughter and dozens of others – including reckless endangerment and hazing counts – against the Beta Theta Pi brothers, significantly narrowing the scope of criminal prosecution in the hazing-related death, according to court documents. The three-day preliminary hearing ended Tuesday. Only charges for alcohol violations and, against two defendants, single counts of conspiracy to commit hazing, will go forward.

It’s the second major hit to the prosecution’s case. During the first hearing last summer, Sinclair dismissed felony aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter charges against eight fraternity brothers. The former district attorney refiled many of those allegations and added more.

Additional defendants were charged after the FBI recovered deleted security camera footage. A preliminary hearing for those defendants will begin May 2, according to the Associated Press.

Piazza was 19 when he died in February 2017, after a party for students who had accepted bids to join the chapter. Piazza that night fell down a flight of stairs after drinking excessively, but no one called for help for almost 12 hours, according to police, who found him unconscious the next morning and took him to a hospital.

His death led to changes at the flagship state campus, which banned the chapter and implemented stricter rules on Greek life. Piazza’s death has also brought international scrutiny to hazing on campus and has shed light on the dangers of alcohol.

Piazza’s father, Jim Piazza, has been outspoken about his teenage son’s final hours, and told the “Today” show last year that, “This wasn’t boys being boys.”

“This was men who intended to force feed lethal amounts of alcohol into other young men …

“And what happened throughout the night was just careless disregard for human life. They basically treated our son as roadkill and a rag doll.”

In the hours before Piazza died, fraternity brothers were texting one another about how much trouble they were going to be in, according to prosecutors. The pledge master at Beta Theta Pi texted, “I don’t want to go to jail for this.”

The texts, prosecutors said, included one that indicated Piazza looked dead, adding, “At the end of the day, I’m accountable for it all.”

“I’ll be the one going to court, paying for an attorney and maybe put in jail.”

More than 300 charges refiled by prosecutors in Piazza’s death included reckless endangerment, conspiracy to commit hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors. Five brothers were charged with involuntary manslaughter, according to court documents.

“I am disappointed by the decision of the Magisterial District Judge and we are assessing our legal options,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement to the AP. ”My office is committed to seeking justice for Timothy Piazza and his family and holding responsible individuals accountable for their actions, consistent with the law and the evidence in this case.”

Sinclair allowed fewer than 20 of the refiled allegations to move forward, according to court documents. Among them were a conspiracy to commit hazing charge against fraternity president Brendan Young of Malvern, Pennsylvania, and member Daniel Casey of Ronkonkoma, New York.

Tom Kline, an attorney for the Piazza family, told Reuters that Sinclair, in dismissing the involuntarily manslaughter charges just as he did last summer, does not believe those allegations should be upheld.

However, Kline said, “The attorney general of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the prior district attorney of Centre County and the Piazza family all disagree.”

Leonard Ambrose, the defense attorney for Joseph Sala, said the refiled charges were “a total waste of time,” according to the AP. All 39 refiled counts against Sala during the hearing were dismissed, leaving him with the allegations Sinclair upheld last summer: 14 counts of hazing and four alcohol-related charges, according to court documents.

“This is the equivalent of a boxing match where they lost the major issues in the first fight, demanded a second fight and lost,” Ambrose said. “That’s it – they were knocked out of the ring.”

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