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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Serious charges dismissed in Penn State frat pledge death

In this May 5, 2017 photo, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, center, stand by as Centre County, Pa., prosecutors discuss an investigation into the death of their son Timothy Piazza, seen in photo at right, during a news conference in Bellefonte, Pa. Centre County, Pa. (Abby Drey / Associated Press)
By Mark Scolforo Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. – A judge Monday threw out the most serious counts against a second set of defendants in a Penn State fraternity pledge’s death last year, leaving in place only hazing and alcohol charges that would likely result in little or no jail time.

While sending 11 more fraternity brothers to trial, Judge Steven Lachman dismissed reckless endangerment charges and allegations that a member of now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi had erased basement security video to thwart investigators.

It was yet another blow to prosecutors, who have struggled to get the most serious charges to stick against the total of 25 fraternity members now awaiting trial in death of Tim Piazza, 19, of Lebanon, New Jersey.

Piazza died of head and abdominal injuries after a night of drinking that followed a pledge bid acceptance ceremony. He suffered a series of falls, including a plunge down basement steps. After he was discovered unconscious in the basement the next morning, fraternity members waited 40 minutes to summon an ambulance. The amount of alcohol in his system was estimated at three or four times the state’s legal limit for driving.

The attorney general’s office is seeking to have a judge reinstate charges dismissed in March against eight fraternity brothers among the first group of 14 ordered to stand trial, including involuntary manslaughter charges against five of them. The most serious charge any of the 25 defendants currently face is reckless endangerment, but no felonies.

Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to try to get some of the tossed charges reinstated for the second set of defendants.

An attorney for Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, said the family is “hopeful that the attorney general will file an appeal so that all individuals will be held fully responsible for their misconduct and so that dangerous and potentially lethal hazing will be deterred.”

Lachman dismissed all three counts that Braxton Becker, 21, of Niskayuna, New York, had faced over the allegedly deleted security video – evidence tampering, obstruction and hindering apprehension or prosecution. A message left for his lawyer was not immediately returned.

Piazza family attorney Tom Kline said his clients were dismayed by the judge’s decision in Becker’s case.

The judge upheld a total of 35 counts of hazing and 37 alcohol-related offenses against the 11 defendants. In addition to Becker’s charges, he threw out five counts of reckless endangerment, 34 alcohol-related counts, two counts of hazing and one count of criminal conspiracy against various members of the group.

Joshua Kurczewski of Erie remains charged with nine counts of hazing and eight alcohol-related counts but no longer faces reckless endangerment or conspiracy.

“Obviously we’re pleased to have 12 of the counts dismissed, particularly the most serious charges,” said his defense attorney, Jeff Veitch. “I felt confident reckless endangerment and conspiracy surely would be dismissed.”

He said the hazing counts could carry up to a year in jail, but with no criminal history it was unlikely Kurczewski would receive a term close to that long if he is convicted.

Last month, prompted by the Piazza case, the Pennsylvania Senate approved and sent to the House a bill to toughen the penalties for hazing, making it a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison for cases that lead to severe injury or death.

Prosecutors have said it is unclear whether the charges against the two sets of defendants will be consolidated for trial.