Penn State frat members cleared of most serious charge in pledge’s death

At+podium+is+Stacy+Parks%2C+Miller+Centre+County+District+Attorney%2C+with+James+and+Evelyn+Piazza%2C+parents+of+Timothy+Piazza%2C+19%2C+of+Readington+Township%2C+N.J.+during+a+press+conference+at+Bellefonte+courthouse+on+Friday+morning+May+5%2C+2017.++%28David+Swanson%2FPhiladelphia+Inquirer%2FTNS%29

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At podium is Stacy Parks, Miller Centre County District Attorney, with James and Evelyn Piazza, parents of Timothy Piazza, 19, of Readington Township, N.J. during a press conference at Bellefonte courthouse on Friday morning May 5, 2017. (David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

In a stunning decision, a Centre County district justice threw out involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges against eight members of a Penn State fraternity in the death of sophomore pledge Tim Piazza.

In dismissing those charges — including aggravated assault, which is a felony — District Justice Allen Sinclair left stand lesser charges including hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors.

The decision was a blow to District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, who vigorously argued the case and maintained throughout that the men shared culpability in Piazza’s death, and Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn, of Lebanon, New Jersey, who sat in the front row for the proceedings.

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The Piazzas declined to comment on the ruling as they left the courthouse.

Parks Miller said the couple was “shocked” by the decision.

But it brought relief to parents and fraternity members whose futures hung in the balance.

Sinclair’s decision followed seven days of testimony and arguments from attorneys for 16 of the 18 men charged in Piazza’s death following a booze-soaked pledge night party where hazing is alleged.

The ruling culminates a preliminary hearing that has been anything but ordinary, both in its length and its use by defense attorneys as a trial test.

Students who will stand trial on at least one charge include: Brendan Young, 21, of Malvern, president of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Penn State; and fellow fraternity members Daniel Casey, 20, of Ronkonkoma, New York, the pledge master; Jonah Neuman, 20, of Nashville; Nick Kubera, 19, of Downingtown; Michael Bonatucci, 20, of Woodstock, Georgia; Gary DiBileo, 21, of Scranton; Luke Visser, 19, of Encinitas, California; and Joe Sala, 19, of Erie.

In all, 14 of 18 fraternity members originally arrested in the case will stand trial on a least one charge.

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Piazza, prosecutors allege, was forced to consume large amounts of alcohol during a Feb. 2 hazing ritual, known as a drinking “gauntlet” and later fell down the basement stairs. Prosecutors obtained video from the now-defunct fraternity house, which showed Piazza falling several other times. Fraternity members left him to languish on a couch and didn’t call for emergency help until almost 12 hours later.

Piazza died Feb. 4 of a head injury, ruptured spleen and collapsed lung.

Prosecutors argued that each fraternity member charged played a role in the death or tried to cover it up afterward. In an unusual twist, prosecutors showed clips from a video taken from the fraternity house that showed pledges including Piazza running from drinking station to drinking station, guzzling booze, and captured gruesome footage of a severely impaired Piazza, alone in the wee hours of the morning, struggling and falling on the floor.

Defense attorneys sought to minimize their clients’ role and asserted that the fraternity members couldn’t have known that Piazza’s life was in danger. They also tried to divert attention to Tim Bream, the 56-year-old Penn State athletic trainer who served as live-in adviser to the fraternity but was not charged with a crime.

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