On August 10, 2017, the preliminary hearing for several former Penn State fraternity members charged in the tragic death of pledge Timothy Piazza is set to resume.

The case centers on allegations of how underage drinking, hazing, and the sophomoric choices of 18 members of Beta Theta Pi rose to extremely serious criminal charges related to a young man’s death. The spotlight on the Greek system and alcohol abuse within university culture has brought up several legal questions and important things for students and families to consider before classes resume this fall.

Typically, college is the first time young men and women find themselves with new and exciting freedoms, but regrettably, some students end up facing charges within the criminal justice system because of lapses in judgment, misunderstandings, or the wrong crowd’s influence. If this ever happens to you or a loved one, it is critical to discuss the matter with a skilled criminal defense lawyer with experience in handling college crimes and is dedicated to protecting you and your future.

Call experienced Pennsylvania criinal defense attorney Michael Fienman at (215) 839-9529 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your situation and how we can help. Fienman Defense routinely represents college students on charges ranging from public drunkenness and underage drinking to drug dealing or possession, aggravated assault, and sexual assault.

What Allegedly Happened at Beta Theta Pi?

Beta Theta Pi was supposed to be an alcohol-free fraternity, but on February 2, 2017, the prosecution claims and in-house security footage apparently shows members putting pledges through a hazing ritual called “the gauntlet,” where prospective pledges had to consume various kinds of alcohol in a very short period. 

According to the district attorney, first, the pledges were told to share and finish a bottle of vodka. Once it was empty, they were lined up outside and as each entered, the young men did another shot, before running down a hallway to shotgun a beer, which involves poking a hole in the side of a can, and opening the tab on the top, making the contents available for rapid consumption. From there, the pledges were to drink wine while fraternity brothers poured beer on them and cheered. This culminated in the pledge being required to successfully throw a ping pong ball into a plastic cup or chug another can of beer.

While the fraternity members claimed that no one was forced to drink that night, after consuming such a considerable amount of alcohol, Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore from Lebanon, New Jersey, apparently fell down the basement stairs of the house and was later seen on surveillance video staggering, falling and hitting his head multiple times, as well as lying limp and unresponsive as fraternity members struck him multiple times. According to the video, which was corroborated and described by police testimony during the hearing, at one point, the video appears to show Mr. Piazza getting up, then falling down another set of stairs, where he remained until the next morning. Fraternity brothers found him unconscious the next morning; however, supposedly waited almost an hour before calling 911.

Mr. Piazza later died in the hospital after sustaining multiple traumatic injuries. In the previously released grand jury report, a doctor claimed that Mr. Piazza’s blood-alcohol level was .36, which is more than 4 and a half times the legal limit.

In text messages and group chats recovered by law enforcement, it appears that members of the fraternity attempted to remove evidence of consuming alcohol and discussed the incriminating nature of the security video. One of the individuals involved allegedly texted, “When they see the video footage of the obstacle course we will be done.”

What are the Charges?

In the aftermath of this tragic incident, the prosecutors are claiming that the fraternity members involved as well as the fraternity itself are ultimately responsible for Mr. Piazza’s death. Specifically, they contend that the brothers at Beta Theta Pi waited to get help to cover up the drinking and come up with a story.

As such, 18 Penn State students are now facing criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and hazing, among other charges for reckless endangerment and evidence tampering. The Beta Theta Pi fraternity, which has been banned from Penn State University’s campus and is also facing involuntary manslaughter and hazing accusations and charges.

The preliminary hearing, which began in June, continued through July and is set to recommence on Thursday, August 10th and 11th, if necessary primarily focused on the security footage video of the events in question, the text messages between brothers, and the internet searches by some in the house. The hearing will continue to go over the evidence and afterward, a judge will decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial.

What to Expect from the Defense

The loss and devastation that the Piazza family has experienced cannot be overstated. However, it is important to keep in mind that the young men involved are now contending with some grievous criminal charges and potentially life-shattering consequences of their own. During this case, issues relating to peer pressure, forced consumption, hazing, and attempts to cover up and conceal their actions will be raised.

With lengthy incarceration and life-long marks on their criminal records in play, the defense attorneys for the accused will likely point out that the prospective pledges were not being forced to consume alcohol and this was a social experience that got out of hand with disastrous results. Additionally, they will argue that the surveillance tape in question is an edited version and this seemingly damning evidence may not tell the whole story.

There will also be questions regarding who was truly responsible for the alcohol consumed and the need to seek help by several underage and inexperienced individuals. Should the ‘social checkers’ and security firm, who were hired by the fraternity and present in the moments after Piazza’s fall have been more involved? Essentially, if trained professionals did not see a problem, how could some inebriated college student be expected to know the situation was life threatening.

The Reaction from Penn State University

With more than 50 fraternities and 30 sororities on campus, Penn State University has announced proposals for new safety reforms, some of which have already been put into place:

  • A zero tolerance for hazing, which if disregarded will result in a “swift and permanent” revocation of a chapter’s status.
  • Restrictions at social functions, including utilizing a trained bartender and no hard liquor.
  • More spot checks at Greek housing and monitoring of social events by university staff.
  • Supporting legislation that supports stronger penalties for hazing.
  • Imposing fees on students who join Greek organizations to pay for the costs associated with monitoring.

Contact a Pennsylvania College Crimes Attorney

In the next few months, we will see this case play out in court and in turn, determine the futures of the individuals charged. As a highly-experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyer, Michael Fienman knows these cases are incredibly complicated and do not take place in a vacuum. There are real victims and it is often difficult to appreciate the full scope of your actions in the heat of the movement, especially without the life skills and maturity to handle unfamiliar and scary situations.

Mistakes can easily get out of hand and even become tragedies. If you are a parent whose child has been charged with a crime on or near a college campus, you are probably both terrified and confused. You most likely saved for your child’s education and your child probably worked very hard to get where they are, but you and your child are now at risk of losing it all. This can feel overwhelming, but don’t lose hope.

At Fienman Defense, we understand the importance of preserving your or your child’s future and are committed to using the system to each client’s advantage and identifying the best possible defense in every case we handle.

Call (215) 839-9529 or contact us online right away to schedule a free and confidential consultation with attorney Michael Fienman.

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