Judge Drops Most Severe Charges in Penn State Hazing Death

Dropped charges include involuntary manslaughter, while four of the 18 students facing charges were dropped from the lawsuit entirely.
Published: September 5, 2017

The most serious charges brought against eight former Penn State fraternity members in the hazing death of student Timothy Piazza have been thrown out by a judge.

On Friday morning, Magisterial District Judge Allen W. Sinclair dropped the charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and simple assault against eight Beta Theta Pi fraternity members for their alleged roles in Piazza’s death, reports The New York Times.

Four defendants who were facing single counts were dropped entirely from the lawsuit.

Sinclair did not give a reason for his decision to drop the charges.

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Fourteen defendants will still stand trial for the charges of recklessly endangering another person, hazing, and furnishing alcohol to a minor, all of which are misdemeanors.

Piazza died in February after consuming a large amount of alcohol during initiation games and sustaining traumatic brain injuries.

Video surveillance from the fraternity shows Piazza falling down the basement stairs twice and striking his head on several other occasions.

Fraternity members were also seen carrying Piazza up the basement stairs and laying him on a couch where some poured water on his face and others slapped him to try to wake him up.

Piazza was later found in the basement around 10 a.m. on the morning of February 3. No one called 911 until around 10:48 a.m. He died a day later from injuries including a fractured skull and a damaged spleen, reports the Lebanon Daily News.

Defense and Prosecutors Give Their Opinion on the Decision

Defense lawyers for the students believe that the prosecution overreached with their charges.

“This is a clear and unmistakable signal that the commonwealth’s case, with respect to those charges, was absolutely and unequivocally eviscerated,” says Theodore Simon, a lawyer for one of the fraternity brothers. “Not every tragedy justifies or warrants criminal prosecution of such serious charges.”

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller says Friday’s ruling was an “error of law”. She plans to refile the involuntary manslaughter charges with a different judge.

“This was disappointing, unexpected and, in our view, not supported by the evidence,” says Miller. “It failed to take into account accomplice liability and the serious group actions of the men.”

Miller also says the judge assessed individual roles versus group responsibility, which she says is a “huge error”.

Judge Sinclair’s decision has drawn additional criticism from other lawyers who have worked on college hazing cases.

William S. Friedlander, an attorney who represented the family of Michael Deng who died after a hazing ritual at Baruch College in New York City, says the court ruling could make prosecutors reconsider steep charges in similar cases.

“It’s a setback in attempting to try and change the culture and allowing this type of stuff to continue,” says Friedlander.

The Victim’s Family Speaks Out

Piazza’s parents, James and Evelyn, say they are looking for justice in the trial, reports NBC News.

“There needs to be a deterrent because we lost our son, and it can happen to anybody,” says Evelyn, adding, “If the defendants acted like a brother or a friend or a responsible human being, it would have been a lot different. We wouldn’t be here.”

When asked if his son’s death is a tragedy that does not warrant a criminal prosecution, James replied, “I think the videotape speaks for itself. Anybody that watches it saw that the individuals in that house were responsible for our son’s death.”

Penn State has permanently closed the Beta chapter and has taken disciplinary control over Greek fraternities and sororities, which includes a zero-tolerance policy for hazing.

The Piazza’s say it is a step in the right direction.

Joseph Elms Jr., one of the former fraternity brothers who had his reckless endangerment charged dropped, says he left the house before it was obvious how serious Piazza’s condition was.

“Tim was a friend. People tend to forget that,” says Elms. “And being accused of having a hand in that makes it a little more rough.”

When asked what he would say to his parents, he responded, “I would just say that I’m sorry that they have to deal with this. No parent should have to endure this.”

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