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Penn State hazing death: Judge again tosses involuntary manslaughter charges

It's the second time the judge in the case has decided to dismiss certain charges ahead of a trial.
by Erik Ortiz and Ezra Kaplan /  / Updated 
Image: Timothy Piazza, Evelyn Piazza, James Piazza
Timothy Piazza, center, with his parents Evelyn Piazza, left, and James Piazza, right, during Hunterdon Central Regional High School football's Senior Night in Flemington, N.J.Patrick Carns / AP file

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A judge on Wednesday again tossed out involuntary manslaughter charges against former members of the Penn State fraternity where a student died during an alcohol-fueled pledge event last year.

In a written ruling, Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair in Pennsylvania dismissed the charges against five members, including the president of the now-disbanded Beta Theta Pi and the fraternity's pledgemaster.

The involuntary manslaughter charges would have carried a maximum punishment of 2-1/2 to five years in prison.

This is the second time Sinclair has decided not to allow the more serious charges to move forward as part of a trial. During a preliminary hearing last year, he threw out the same involuntary manslaughter charges as well as felony charges of aggravated assault.

Following that decision, the Centre County District Attorney's Office announced it would refile charges in the high-profile case, which has put a spotlight on alcohol abuse and hazing in the Greek letter system.

Timothy Piazza was at a Beta pledge event on Feb. 2, 2017, when police said he fell down basement steps during a night of excessive drinking. First responders were not called until almost 12 hours later — after various brothers failed to assist him, prosecutors alleged. The 19-year-old sophomore died two days later.

During this latest preliminary hearing that began Friday, the judge was tasked with deciding the new and refiled charges against 11 former Beta members.

Sinclair on Wednesday also threw out all charges against the defendants of recklessly endangering another person. A few other charges, including conspiracy to commit hazing and unlawful acts relative to minors, were held.

While defense attorneys this week argued that the prosecution provided no new evidence that would alter the judge's previous decision, the court was shown security video taken from the basement of the Beta house on the night Piazza fell. Prosecutors said the pledge was served 18 drinks over 82 minutes.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office was given the case earlier this year, said it plans to move forward with the other charges that still stand, but would assess its legal options.

"My office is committed to seeking justice for Timothy Piazza and his family and holding responsible individuals accountable for their actions, consistent with the law and the evidence in this case," Shapiro said in a statement.

An attorney for the Piazza family said in a statement that they were "disappointed" by the judge's decision, but also "heartened" that the conspiracy charge was kept.

A second round of preliminary hearings for 12 other former Beta brothers charged in the case is scheduled for May.

The ex-Beta members have denied all charges, and attorneys for them have said that while excessive drinking does occur on college campuses, there was no criminal behavior that night.

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