HARRISBURG — Attorney General Josh Shapiro promised Tuesday to use "whatever legal tools" he can to have involuntary manslaughter charges reinstated against five former fraternity members charged in the 2017 hazing death of Pennsylvania State University student Timothy Piazza.
A week after his office signaled its plan to appeal the March ruling by District Judge Allen Sinclair dismissing the most serious charges against the former members of Beta Theta Pi, Shapiro said he believes there was enough evidence to send the charges up to the trial court level.
"That local district magistrate should not have the final say," Shapiro said at a news conference in his office, where he was joined by Piazza's parents. "Instead, we firmly believe that justice for Tim Piazza demands that a jury hear the evidence and decide whether or not these individuals should be held accountable for involuntary manslaughter, in addition to the many other charges that have already been held for court."
Piazza, a sophomore from New Jersey, died of injuries he suffered after falling at an alcohol-soaked pledge party in February 2017. Using surveillance video from inside the fraternity house, prosecutors estimated he was given or ingested 18 drinks in about 82 minutes. His death prompted a crackdown on the fraternity system at Penn State and contributed to growing scrutiny at other schools.
The case has taken a winding trip through the Centre County court system. It was initially brought last year by District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. When she lost her bid for reelection, new District Attorney Bernie Cantorna asked the Attorney General's Office to take over the case because he had a conflict.
Shapiro's office staffed the prosecution table for the hearing in March for several defendants, including the five whose involuntary manslaughter charges were dismissed. A second hearing for different defendants is scheduled to start Wednesday.
The attorney general filed a notice of appeal last week and intends in the coming weeks to file an additional brief further detailing the basis of the appeal. The Centre County Common Pleas Court president judge, who oversees the courts, will then decide whether to have arguments on the appeal, according to the Attorney General's Office. If he chooses not to, Shapiro's office could appeal to the Superior Court.
Moving forward with the case, Shapiro said, his prosecutors will take a different approach than the one adopted by Parks Miller's office. While her office used the presence of alcohol to support the involuntary manslaughter charges, Shapiro said his office was pursuing those particular charges against only people who met three criteria: that they planned and participated in a drinking "gantlet" prior to Piazza's death, that they knew that he fell, and that they did not seek medical help for him.
State prosecutors say they will appeal the dismissal of the manslaughter charges filed against five men: Daniel Casey, 21, of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; Gary DiBileo II, 22, of Scranton; Jonah Neuman, 20, of Nashville; Luke Visser, 20, of Encinitas, Calif.; and Brendan Young, 22, of Malvern.
Casey's lawyer, Steven P. Trialonas, disagreed with Shapiro's decision.
"The appeal filed by the Attorney General's Office is misguided, misplaced, and misleading," Trialonas said in an email. "As an attorney, I am shocked at the legal incompetence displayed by the appeal. As a Pennsylvanian, I am outraged at the continued waste of taxpayer dollars chasing criminal charges that have been properly dismissed twice due to grossly inadequate evidence."
Attorney Michael Engle, who represents DiBileo, said Tuesday that the attorney general's theory on the case was "no more compelling than the previous theory [prosecutors] put forth." He intends to ask the president judge to quash the appeal attempt on the grounds that it is "procedurally improper."
"From the outset of this case, we have indicated that the manslaughter charges are not warranted and not legally appropriate," he said.
Lawyers for the other men declined to comment, could not immediately be reached, or said they were still reviewing Shapiro's remarks.
Twenty-six people have been charged in connection with the case.