By MARK SCOLFORO
A judge threw out involuntary manslaughter and many of the other most serious remaining charges Wednesday against 11 of the former Penn State fraternity members arrested in a pledge’s hazing-related death last year, the second major blow to the prosecution’s case. District Judge Allen Sinclair dismissed all five involuntary manslaughter charges, along with all reckless endangerment and hazing counts before him during the three-day hearing that wrapped up late Tuesday, sending to county court for trial only alcohol violations and, against two defendants, single counts of conspiracy to commit hazing.
The case involves the February 2017 death of 19-year-old sophomore engineering student Tim Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey, who died of severe head and abdominal injuries after falling several times at the house the night of a bid acceptance ceremony and party.
Security video recovered from the house showed him and other pledges being plied with alcohol, and authorities later estimated Piazza had consumed three to four times the state’s legal limit of alcohol for drivers.
The district judge had previously tossed many of those same counts on Sept. 1, after an eight-day preliminary hearing. The county district attorney subsequently refiled many of those charges, and more were added. There also were new defendants charged after the FBI was able to recover deleted security camera footage from the basement. A preliminary hearing for those defendants is scheduled to begin May 2.
Defense attorney Leonard Ambrose, representing Joseph Sala, called the refiled charges “a total waste of time.” All 39 counts against Sala that were in play during the hearing were dismissed, leaving him with 14 counts of hazing and four alcohol-related charges that Sinclair had upheld in September. “This is the equivalent of a boxing match where they lost the major issues in the first fight, demanded a second fight and lost,” Ambrose said. “That’s it — they were knocked out of the ring.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office took over the case upon the request of a new district attorney in January, said their review of the case was continuing. “We will move forward with our case and the charges that were held for trial today,” said Shapiro, a
Democrat. “I am disappointed by the decision of the magisterial district judge and we are assessing our legal options. My office is committed to seeking justice for Timothy Piazza and his family and holding responsible individuals accountable for their actions.”
Felony counts of aggravated assault that would have carried the lengthiest potential prison sentences had been tossed at a prior hearing, and prosecutors eventually opted not to pursue them again. The defense attorney for Gary DiBileo, Michael Engle, said prosecutors made essentially the same argument about involuntary manslaughter that was unsuccessful in September. “Despite our feelings of gratitude to the court for today’s legal ruling, Gary and his family recognize that a young man tragically lost his life and they continue to pray for Mr. Piazza’s family during this extremely difficult time,” Engle said.
Nick Kubera saw all 11 counts against him get dismissed, leaving him to defend the charges that Sinclair had previously forwarded to court — six counts of reckless endangerment, 14 counts of hazing and alcohol violations. “Two preliminary hearings of unprecedented length conducted by two prosecutors doesn’t change the obvious — that a freshman college student who had been a fraternity member for all of a couple of weeks and who handed six pledges a beer (only five of whom were underage) is guilty of nothing more than handing six pledges a beer,” said Kubera’s lawyer, Andrew Shubin.
Tom Kline, a civil lawyer for Piazza’s parents, said they were disappointed that involuntary manslaughter charges were thrown out but heartened that the judge upheld the counts of conspiracy to commit hazing. “Jim and Evelyn Piazza are optimistic … this prosecution will eventually deter this kind of abhorrent conduct,” Kline said. After drinking heavily that night, Tim Piazza had to be helped upstairs to a couch, but soon after he fell down the basement stairs and had to be carried upstairs. He spent much of the ensuing evening and overnight on a couch, exhibiting signs of pain and discomfort.
Members of the fraternity took half-hearted and even counterproductive steps to address his condition, ultimately leaving him alone. By the next morning, Piazza was back in the basement, where fraternity members found him unconscious. They carried him upstairs but waited 40 minutes to call for help.