Manslaughter, assault dropped in Penn State frat death case
HARRISBURG — Prosecutors said Tuesday they were dropping involuntary-manslaughter and assault charges against five Penn State University fraternity brothers in the death of a pledge who consumed a lot of alcohol, repeatedly fell down and suffered a fractured skull.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the decision a day before a preliminary hearing for 12 members of Beta Theta Pi to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to head toward trial on the remaining allegations related to the death of Tim Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey.
Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore engineering student, consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol and suffered severe injuries in a series of falls inside the now-closed fraternity on the night of a February 2017 pledge bid acceptance ceremony.
Security cameras inside the frat house recorded Piazza’s excruciating night, including hapless efforts by members of the fraternity to address his dire condition. Piazza was found to have a fractured skull and a shattered spleen, with massive internal bleeding and other injuries.
The set of 12 defendants due in court this week is separate from 14 fraternity members whose charges were previously sent to county court after marathon preliminary hearings. The five whose most serious charges are being dropped still face lesser counts, as do the other seven.
Defense attorney John Sughrue described the manslaughter and assault allegations as ridiculous and absurd.
“These charges were strictly headline-grabbers,” said Sughrue, who represents defendant Bo Han Song.
Song, 20, of Wayne, still faces charges of reckless endangerment, hazing and alcohol violations.
Aggravated- and simple-assault and involuntary-manslaughter charges also are being dropped against Joshua Kurczewski, 20, of Erie; Ryan Burke, 21, of Scranton; Jonathan Kanzler, 19, of Coopersburg; and Aidan O’Brien, 20 of West Chester.
Six others face misdemeanor hazing and alcohol-related charges, while the 12th defendant, Braxton Becker, 21, of Niskayuna, New York, is accused of evidence tampering and obstruction.
The 12 were charged in November after the FBI recovered deleted security camera footage from the fraternity house basement, where Piazza was found unconscious the morning after the party. Fraternity members waited 40 minutes before summoning an ambulance.
Shapiro announced last week his office wants a judge to restore involuntary-manslaughter charges that were dismissed against five of the 14 who previously went through preliminary hearings.
Shapiro said he believes involuntary-manslaughter charges are justified in the five instances in which he claims defendants planned or participated in a drinking station hazing gauntlet, knew Piazza had fallen and did not render aid. The Centre County president judge will determine if the charges should be reinstated, and, if not, Shapiro said he intends to appeal further to Superior Court.
Shapiro told reporters in his Harrisburg office on Tuesday that those five defendants — Brendan Young, Daniel Casey, Jonah Neuman, Gary DiBileo and Luke Visser — had “specific knowledge of Tim’s fall at a time when medical intervention would have saved Tim’s life.”
The Democratic attorney general also is seeking to reinstate reckless endangerment against six defendants, hazing against two and conspiracy against eight, all charges that were thrown out in the case against the earlier group of 14.
If charges against the 12 are sent to county court as a result of this week’s hearing, they might be combined with the other 14 for one trial or be split into smaller groups and handled separately.
Other defense attorneys in the case have said their clients are praying for Piazza’s family but have called the charges a waste of time.