Sprawling Penn State hazing death case grinds through courts

FILE – In this Nov. 9, 2017, file photo, a bicyclist rides past Penn State's shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity house in State College, Pa. A fourth multi-day preliminary hearing was scheduled in July 2018 in the criminal case against members of the fraternity chapter who face charges related to the February 2017, death of fraternity pledge Tim Piazza, of Lebanon, N.J., after a night of drinking. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE – In this June 13, 2018, file photo, Ryan Burke, left, who was a fraternity brother at Penn State's shuttered Beta Theta Pi chapter, walks with his attorney Philip Masorti, right, after Burke pleaded guilty to four counts of hazing and five alcohol-related offenses related to the death of fraternity pledge Tim Piazza, outside the Centre County Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte, Pa. Burke's lawyers have until July 24, 2018, to submit a document related to his sentencing, as the criminal case picks up steam against fraternity members facing charges related to Piazza's February 2017, death after a night of drinking. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP, File)
FILE – In this May 5, 2017, file photo, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, center, stand by as Centre County, Pa., prosecutors discuss an investigation into the death of their son Tim Piazza, seen in photo at right, during a news conference in Bellefonte, Pa. A fourth multi-day preliminary hearing was scheduled in July 2018, in the criminal case against members of Penn State's shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity chapter, who face charges related to the February 2017, death of Piazza, of Lebanon, N.J., after a night of drinking. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP, File)

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The sprawling criminal case against former members of a Penn State fraternity over the death of a pledge last year is about to pick up steam with yet another preliminary hearing on the horizon, as well as the first sentencing.

Twenty-five members of shuttered Beta Theta Pi face charges related to the February 2017 death of Tim Piazza, who was fatally injured in a series of falls during a night of drinking and hazing after participating in a pledge bid acceptance ceremony. A 26th defendant has pleaded guilty.

The case has, so far, produced three multiday preliminary hearings, rulings by two different magisterial district judges to throw out charges, a decision by the attorney general's office to take over the prosecution and a pending legislative effort to toughen Pennsylvania's anti-hazing law.

Piazza, a 19-year-old engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey, participated in a series of drinking stations the night of Feb. 2, 2017, as well as a basement event involving rapid consumption of alcohol. The house's elaborate video security system recorded him stumbling to a couch on the first floor before falling down the steps. He was carried back upstairs, and spent the night in evident pain, most of it on the couch as fraternity brothers took ineffective and even harmful steps to address his condition.

After he was found unconscious in the basement the next morning, it took his friends about 40 minutes to summon an ambulance, and he later died at a hospital. Medical experts say he suffered a fractured skull and shattered spleen, and his blood-alcohol level has been estimated to have peaked at three or four times the legal limit for driving.

ANOTHER MULTIDAY PRELIMINARY HEARING

Centre County's president judge, Pamela Ruest, last week granted a request by the attorney general's office to reinstate charges against eight defendants, including involuntary manslaughter counts against five of them.

She scheduled a five-day preliminary hearing starting July 23 to determine if there is enough evidence to send the charges to county court for trial, which will be the fourth preliminary hearing in the matter. Ruest also replaced the magisterial district judge who had twice thrown out charges.

A district judge in May dismissed all charges against Braxton Becker, who had been accused of evidence tampering, hindering apprehension and obstruction for allegedly erasing security video shot in the fraternity basement. Those charges were subsequently refiled and have been added to the July 23 hearing. It will also address refiled charges against Joshua Kurczewski of reckless endangerment, furnishing alcohol to a minor and conspiracy to commit hazing.

Lawyers say it's quite possible that the July 23 hearing could be postponed.

GUILTY PLEA ENTERED

One former Beta Theta Pi brother, Ryan Burke, pleaded guilty June 13 to all nine charges he still faced — four counts of hazing and five alcohol-related offenses. Lawyers have until July 24 to submit a document related to his sentencing.

CHARGES IN COUNTY COURT

Despite the most serious offenses being dismissed or withdrawn, there are still dozens of counts that have been forwarded to county court for trial against the remaining defendants. A pretrial conference about the status of those charges is scheduled for July 16.

ANTI-HAZING LAW PENDING

The state Senate in April voted unanimously to toughen criminal penalties for hazing, making the most severe cases felonies and allowing for confiscation of fraternity houses where hazing has occurred. It would also add new reporting requirements for schools when anti-hazing laws are violated.

The bill, named for Piazza, has been held up in the House over the fate of House-passed legislation to prohibit abortions when the sole reason is the fetus has or may have Down syndrome. The bill could get action when lawmakers return to session in the fall.

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