In a stunning decision, a Centre County district judge Friday threw out the most serious charges — involuntary manslaughter and felony aggravated assault — against eight members of a Pennsylvania State University fraternity in the death of sophomore pledge Tim Piazza.
The dismissal of the felony charge in particular greatly reduces the possibility of jail time if any of the students is convicted.
District Judge Allen Sinclair let stand lesser charges including hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors for the eight, but the case is far from over, as District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has vowed to refile some of the dismissed charges.
In all, 14 of the 18 men originally charged in connection with Piazza's Feb. 4 death will stand trial on at least one offense.
The decision still came as a blow to Parks Miller, who vigorously argued the case, and maintained throughout that the men shared culpability in Piazza's death and should have faced the more serious charges. It also upset Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn, of Lebanon, N.J., who sat in the front row for the proceedings.
"They're shocked," Parks Miller said of the Piazzas, who declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
The ruling, however, represented a favorable outcome for parents and fraternity members whose futures hang in the balance.
The eight who saw the most serious charges dismissed were Brendan Young, 21, of Malvern, president of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Penn State, and fellow fraternity members Daniel Casey, 20, of Ronkonkoma, N.Y, the pledge master; Jonah Neuman, 20, of Nashville; Nick Kubera, 19, of Downingtown; Michael Bonatucci, 20, of Woodstock, Ga.; Gary DiBileo, 21, of Scranton; Luke Visser, 19, of Encinitas, Calif.; and Joe Sala, 19, of Erie.
"We're relieved," said Leonard G. Ambrose III, the attorney who represented Sala, who still faces charges of hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, and unlawful acts relative to liquor. "It doesn't mean this is over. It may be round one or round two, but we'll go as many rounds as we have to go."
Theodore Simon, who represented Visser, said the district attorney had no basis to bring aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, and simple assault charges, and the judge's sweeping denial of those offenses proves it.
"We're grateful to the judge for his careful, patient, searching inquiry in determination of the true facts," said Simon, whose client still faces charges of reckless endangerment, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, and unlawful acts related to liquor.
Frank Fina represented fraternity president Young. "They were overcome with a certain degree of relief because this has just become such a nightmare," Fina said of Young and his parents. "The depiction of Mr. Young by the prosecutor and the way that picture was thrust into the public eye created a totally false image of what happened."
Fina said many of the defendants, including Young, have left Penn State because they felt ostracized. Young attends college elsewhere, he said.
Penn State said in a statement that it had completed disciplinary proceedings for 35 students involved in the Beta Theta Pi case but declined to list the outcomes.
"However, many students involved in the process have taken disciplinary withdrawals from Penn State," the university said.
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. Two members had waived their right to a hearing.
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.
Sinclair offered no commentary on his decision, but quickly rattled off each charge and its disposition as the courtroom audience sat in silence.
Young still faces five charges, including reckless endangerment, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, unlawful acts relative to liquor, and tampering with evidence. Casey faces the same charges.
Neuman still faces reckless endangerment, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, unlawful acts relative to liquor, and disorderly conduct. Kubera, Bonatucci, and DiBileo still face charges of reckless endangerment, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, and unlawful acts related to liquor.
Sinclair threw out a lone charge of tampering with evidence against Lucas Rockwell, 21, of Bolling Air Force Base, D.C.; Ryan McCann, 22, of Pittsburgh; and Braxton Becker, 21, of Niskayuna, N.Y., and a lone charge of reckless endangerment against Joseph Ems Jr. of Philadelphia.
The other six members and charges they face are: Parker Jax Yochim, 19, of Waterford, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, and unlawful acts relative to liquor; Lars Kenyon, 19, of Barrington, R.I., hazing; Craig Heimer, 21, of Port Matilda, furnishing alcohol to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor; Michael Angelo Schiavone, 21, of Yardley; hazing and reckless endangerment, Ed Gilmartin, 21, of Scranton, tampering with evidence; and Ryan Foster, 22, of Bedford, Mass., tampering with evidence.
The fraternity itself also remains charged with hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors.
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-closed 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. Also captured was gruesome footage of a severely impaired Piazza, alone in the morning, struggling and falling on the floor.
Defense attorneys sought to minimize their clients' roles 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.
Parks Miller vowed to refile the involuntary manslaughter charges and possibly others.
"A grand jury that sat for a long time already found probable cause on these charges," she said.
Tom Kline, a lawyer for the Piazzas, said the loss of felony aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter charges doesn't minimize the importance of the judge's decision to send on the serious charges of reckless endangerment and other offenses.
"This is still a very serious matter," Kline said, "and it is a matter" for which "there is a very significant path forward."