Manslaughter charges dropped in death of Penn State fraternity pledge


Eighteen fraternity members and the Beta Theta Pi fraternity itself were charged in connection with the February 4 hazing death of Timothy John Piazza at Penn State University – eight of those members were charged with involuntary manslaughter, according to a press release from the Centre County District Attorney’s office. (Patrick Carns Photography)

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CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. — A state judge in Pennsylvania threw out involuntary manslaughter charges Friday against eight fraternity members and the Beta Theta Pi fraternity in connection with the death this year of Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza following an initiation ritual involving alcohol.

All aggravated and simple assault charges and charges stemming from the 2016 rush period also were tossed out by Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair of Centre County.

Piazza, 19, died following his first night pledging Beta Theta Pi, a fraternity that was supposed to be alcohol-free as a result of a suspension eight years ago. Surveillance footage played in court shows Piazza falling repeatedly, including down a flight of stairs, following the event involving heavy drinking.

The university, which claims it was not responsible for enforcing the alcohol prohibition, has permanently banned the fraternity from operating on campus.

An attorney for Piazza’s parents said after Friday’s hearing that the remaining charges against 14 fraternity members are serious and could result in jail time, if the defendants are found guilty.

Piazza’s parents cried after Friday’s hearing, attorney Tom Kline said, though not because the most serious charges were tossed.

“They didn’t cry on the dismissal of higher charges,” he said. “They cried tears for their son. … This case is about when is it going to stop in America — the craziness, the permissiveness, the excessiveness, the debauchery, the depravity that goes on in a fraternity house like we saw on a video tape.”

Prosecutor vows to refile charges

Piazza’s death led to one of the largest criminal indictments against a fraternity and its members in recent history. More than 1,000 counts were levied against 18 Beta Theta Pi members, including eight who were charged with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.

After Friday’s ruling, four fraternity brothers no longer face charges. Ryan McCann, Lucas Rockwell and Braxton Becker had been charged with tampering with evidence. Joseph Ems is no longer facing a charge of reckless endangerment.

Several fraternity members were bound over for trial on charges including hazing, furnishing alcohol, reckless endangerment, and tampering with evidence.

Two fraternity brothers who were charged with evidence-tampering — Ryan Foster and Ed Gilmartin — waived their right to this hearing, so their charges will proceed to trial.

District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said after the hearing that she was “certainly planning to refile” the involuntary manslaughter charges, calling that decision “a no-brainer.” Her office also may refile other charges that were dropped, she said.

Parks Miller said she believes the grand jury found sufficient probable cause and the judge erred in his decision.

“There were some errors of law we believe,” she said.

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