A Centre County district judge threw out involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges against members of a Penn State fraternity in the alcohol-related hazing death of a pledge, The Associated Press reported Friday. District Judge Allen Sinclair ordered 14 of the young men and former fraternity brothers of Beta Theta Pi to stand trial on less serious counts relating to the February death of Timothy Piazza, 19, of Lebanon, New Jersey. Authorities say Piazza, pledging at the now-shuttered fraternity, was made to run a gauntlet of drinking stations and guzzle different types of alcohol. He fell down repeatedly in the hours afterward. His fraternity brothers didn’t call 911 until the next morning.
There were incriminating text messages. And security camera footage.
And most of all, a young man’s life lost.
That life was treated as if it were as disposable as used party cups, a problem to be cleaned up when the morning came. The dangerously drunk and sickened Piazza was not viewed by some of his so-called “brothers” as a brother at all, but as a problem that needed to be handled — in a way, it seemed to us, that wouldn’t constrict their ability to hold future parties.
So they allegedly directed Piazza’s fellow pledges to clear the fraternity house of evidence of alcohol. They angrily dismissed suggestions that Piazza needed medical help.
Frat members slapped Piazza to rouse him. Doused him with liquid. Placed a heavy backpack on his back to keep him from rolling over and choking on his vomit.
So they knew he was ill. And yet, when he was found on the floor of the fraternity house basement the morning after the party, the decision was to dress him and clean him up a bit. You know — to make him look more presentable.
Some 12 hours after Piazza’s ordeal began, fraternity members finally summoned emergency help.
It was too late. Piazza died a day later of a fractured skull, ruptured spleen and collapsed lung.
The eight former frat brothers who had the most serious charges dismissed last week were ages 19 to 21. They were old enough to know that when someone is so drunk he is falling down the stairs that you should get him help. They were old enough to understand that nothing is more important than making sure he’s OK.
The Philadelphia Inquirer called the judge’s decision to throw out the involuntary manslaughter and felony aggravated assault charges in Piazza’s death “stunning.”
It was stunning. And outrageous.
We are left with so many questions. Why did the district judge not explain his decision? How do Timothy Piazza’s parents reckon with a decision that seems to diminish the enormity of their loss and the responsibility of those who might have prevented it?
Fourteen young men still will stand trial on at least one offense. But as the Inquirer noted, the “dismissal of the felony charge in particular greatly reduces the possibility of jail time if any of the students are convicted.”
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has pledged to refile some of the dismissed charges. And we think she should.
Not because we think vengeance is demanded here. And not because we were galled by the insensitivity of the lawyer for defendant Joseph Ems, who had been charged with reckless endangerment — though we were. (“He’s happy to move on with his life, which has been on hold for about a year,” Ems’ lawyer, William Brennan, said.)
This was an egregious case. We would have liked to have seen a full airing of the charges in the Court of Common Pleas before a jury. That might have yielded some answers — and some lessons about a collegiate culture that encourages excessive drinking but discourages accountability. Who is responsible when a pledge dies after alleged hazing? How severe is the punishment if culpability is determined? When is a tragedy more than just a tragedy, but a crime that could have been prevented?
We were hoping also to hear more from Tim Bream, a Penn State athletic trainer and the adult adviser who resided in the frat house. He hasn’t been accused of any crime. On the stand, Bream said he wasn’t in charge of discipline at the fraternity; his job mostly had to do with overseeing house maintenance and offering advice on the fraternity’s finances.
It seems to us that an adult adviser of a university fraternity should be handling more important matters — like safety. This is a question for Penn State officials to consider, and we hope they do. Because the presence of such an adviser was likely a comfort to fraternity members’ parents — but bitterly cold comfort to Piazza’s in the end.
Timothy Piazza died a horrible death because he wanted to make some friends at Penn State. It was an understandable aim that ended in an incomprehensible way. And someone ought to be held accountable.