Charges likely in Penn State frat death, prosecutors say

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Charges are likely against several people in the death of Pennsylvania State University student Tim Piazza, who fell down stairs during a fraternity pledge night party in February, according to a legal filing last week by Centre County prosecutors.

The filing was made in a dispute between the fraternity chapter’s housing corporation and prosecutors over whether video that police obtained from the fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, of the night the 19-year-old sophomore engineering major fell should be returned to it.

Tim Piazza

Tim Piazza died after falling down stairs at a Penn State fraternity on pledge night.

Prosecutors said in court filings that portions of the video were presented to an investigating grand jury and “will bear to a great degree on the question of probable cause to arrest a number of individuals and play a critical role in the prosecution of these individuals.”

The fraternity has argued that it needs the footage returned to prepare its defense. Prosecutors have insisted that the property is subject to grand jury secrecy requirements and should not be returned.

Centre County Judge Thomas King Kistler, who supervises the grand jury, sided with the fraternity in an April 25 order. Prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which declined the prosecutors’ request. Prosecutors have asked Kistler for reconsideration.

Prosecutors did not say which charges they would seek in Piazza’s death.

Bruce L. Castor Jr., special assistant district attorney, wrote in an April 26 filing that the investigation “is likely to lead to the arrest and prosecution of a number of individuals for conduct surrounding the death of another person.”

Defense attorneys engaged in the matter said last month that authorities appear to be weighing a variety of charges against multiple people, including hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, reckless endangerment, and manslaughter.

Piazza, of Lebanon, N.J., was pledging the fraternity and attending a bid night party on Feb. 2. He was intoxicated and fell about 11 p.m. Members of the fraternity did not call for emergency help until about 12 hours later. Piazza, who suffered a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, and nonrecoverable brain injury, died the next day. His parents, Jim and Evelyn, have hired lawyer Tom Kline.

Penn State has permanently banned the fraternity, citing evidence of hazing, forced drinking, and other illegal activity.

Michael P. Leahey, a lawyer for Beta Theta Pi, said Monday that the fraternity had not yet received the video footage, which under the judge’s order should have been returned by last Thursday afternoon.

Kistler declined to comment.

The Beta Theta Pi house had an extensive surveillance system unusual for fraternity houses, Damon Sims, Penn State’s vice president for student affairs, has said.

“What we know is that this was a hazing ritual and it involved the gross misuse of alcohol,” Sims has said, declining say whether he had seen the video. “These men were made to ingest enormous amounts of alcohol. … To my knowledge, this is the first time that has happened in a chapter house where there was a sophisticated surveillance system.”

Kline, the Piazzas’ attorney, wrote a letter to the fraternity Monday asking that it preserve all the footage, give access for an inspection and “without delay provide us with a copy of the video footage and images.”

“This is, by all accounts, critical evidence in this case,” Kline wrote.

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