A judge threw out involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges Friday against members of a Penn State fraternity in the alcohol-related hazing death of a pledge, ordering 12 of the young men to stand trial on less serious counts.
The ruling, issued without explanation by District Justice Allen Sinclair, was a stinging defeat for prosecutors in one of the biggest and most harrowing hazing cases ever brought in the U.S., built on hours of security camera footage and numerous text messages exchanged among fraternity brothers.
"Obviously now the teeth have really been taken out of the commonwealth's case," said Michael Engle, defense attorney for Gary DiBileo, 21.
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Tim Piazza, 19, of Lebanon, New Jersey, died in February after guzzling vodka and beer at a series of drinking stations at the now-closed Beta Theta Pi house and then falling head-first down the basement stairs.
His frat brothers did not call an ambulance until the next morning. Piazza died a day later of injuries that included a fractured skull and damaged spleen.
The judge's decision followed a hard-fought, unusually long seven-day preliminary hearing involving a platoon of defense attorneys who said Piazza's death was a tragic accident.
In his ruling, the judge threw out all charges against four defendants. As a result, 14 frat brothers in all will stand trial. Two of them previously agreed to waive their right to a preliminary hearing. No trial date was set.
Eight of those frat brothers could have been sent away to prison for several years if convicted of the felony charge of aggravated assault. Now the most serious charge any of them face, in addition to unlawful hazing and violating liquor laws, is reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor that could bring them little or no jail time.
District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said she plans to seek a judge's permission to refile involuntary manslaughter charges and might also try to reinstate aggravated assault charges.
She said the judge apparently based his ruling on an assessment of the defendants' individual roles, which she called "a huge legal error" in a case she pursued based on a theory of accomplice liability.
"Sometimes judges get it wrong — that's why we have an appeal," she said.
An FBI attempt underway to recover suspected deleted footage from the fraternity house's security system could produce new evidence and may warrant additional charges, the prosecutor said.
Piazza's parents watched the hearing from the gallery's front row and left the courthouse without commenting. Their lawyer, Tom Kline, said they planned to return home and consider that their son won't be at Penn State's home football opener on Saturday.
"This is no day for celebration for anyone," Kline said.
Defense attorneys said they will challenge any effort to restore the charges and will work to whittle down what remains.
Leonard Ambrose, the lawyer for Joseph Sala, 19, who was among those facing the most serious counts, said there was "no basis for most of the charges."
Prosecutors argued during the hearing that fraternity members pressured Piazza and other pledges to run through a speed-drinking "gantlet."
Cameras in the frat house showed Piazza staggering around, falling repeatedly over the course of the night.
For several hours after he got hurt, members of the fraternity appeared to take half-hearted and even counterproductive measures to help him, pouring liquid on him and strapping on a loaded backpack to prevent him from rolling over and choking on his vomit.
In one of the many text messages obtained by prosecutors, one frat member said to another: "Make sure the pledges clean the basement, and get rid of any evidence of alcohol."
Defense attorneys argued that their clients' roles were minimal or that their actions did not amount to a crime. They argued the students had little reason to anticipate the night would end in tragedy.
Piazza's "tragic death was an accident, and that's what the judge saw," said defense attorney Frank Fina, who represents the fraternity president, Brendan Young, 22. He complained that the defendants have been demonized.
All charges were thrown out against Joseph Ems, 21, of Philadelphia; Ryan McCann, 22, of Pittsburgh; Lucas Rockwell, 21, of Washington, D.C.; and Braxton Becker, 21, of Niskayuna, New York. Ems had been charged with reckless endangerment, the others with evidence tampering.
"He's happy to move on with his life, which has been on hold for about a year," said Ems' lawyer, William Brennan.