September 1, 2017 / 10:11 AM / in 10 months

Judge tosses top charges in Penn State fraternity death

BELLEFONTE, Pa. (Reuters) - A judge on Friday threw out the most serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault filed against 16 Pennsylvania State University fraternity members in the alcohol-fueled hazing death of a 19-year-old prospective member.

Members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity still face lesser charges in the death of Timothy Piazza, who died on Feb. 4 after playing a drinking game at the fraternity house near campus in State College, Pennsylvania.

The prosecutor failed to present enough evidence to support a trial for eight of the fraternity members on felony charges of aggravated assault and misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, Centre County Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair found .

Four people who faced single counts of tampering with evidence were dropped from the case altogether as a result of Friday’s ruling.

The judge decided eight will face trial on recklessly endangering a life, punishable by up to two years in prison, and that 11 will face trial on the hazing charge, which carries up to a year in jail. In addition, all 12 will be tried for furnishing alcohol to minors.

District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said she will refile the involuntary manslaughter charges against all eight defendants, and possibly the aggravated assault charges against some of them.

Piazza, a student from Lebanon, New Jersey, died two days after he attended a party that featured a drinking game called “The Gauntlet.” Piazza suffered fatal injuries after drunkenly falling several times, including twice down a flight of stairs.

Prosecutors say the fraternity brothers failed to summon medical help for hours, despite obvious signs that Piazza was unwell.

Shaken by the judge’s ruling, Piazza’s parents said they would support the prosecutors’ decision to refile the charges, said Tom Kline, an attorney for Jim and Evelyn Piazza.

“They cried tears, not for the verdict, but for their son,” Kline said.

The father of defendant Joe Sala, who witnesses testified played the role of gatekeeper in the drinking game, cheered the judge’s ruling.

“Justice was served,” said Mike Sala, an ophthalmologist from Erie.

Piazza’s death “was an awful tragedy. A young man lost his life,” said Ted Simon, the lawyer for fraternity member Luke Visser. “But not every tragedy should result in serious criminal charges.”

Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Joseph Ax; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis

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