March 28, 2018 / 7:10 PM / 25 days ago

Manslaughter charges thrown out in Pennsylvania fraternity death

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - A magistrate on Wednesday threw out manslaughter charges filed against five members of a Pennsylvania State University fraternity for their roles in the alcohol-fueled hazing death of sophomore Timothy Piazza last year.

The Feb. 4, 2017, death followed a night of heavy drinking that prosecutors claim was forced upon Piazza but defense lawyers contend was voluntary. It was the latest in a series of pledge deaths that have cast a harsh light on U.S. college fraternity culture and prompted some schools to ban fraternities.

Wednesday’s ruling marked the second time Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair rejected the most serious charges brought by state prosecutors against members of Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity, after he rejected similar charges last summer.

Prosecutors had brought a range of lesser charges against a total of 11 fraternity members, and Sinclair ruled that four of them should stand trial on charges of conspiracy to commit hazing or furnishing to minors.

He did not give a reason for his ruling, which followed four days of hearings in the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte. He released his ruling by e-mail Wednesday morning.

Piazza, 19, twice fell down flights of stairs, which caused the injuries that killed him, prosecutors said, charging that fraternity members ignored the incidents. Some of Piazza’s agonies were captured on a graphic video played in court.

“I am disappointed by the decision. ... We are assessing our legal options,” state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. “My office is committed to seeking justice for Timothy Piazza and his family.”

Tom Kline, lawyer for the Piazza family, could not immediately be reached for comment.

After Sinclair dismissed the charges last summer, then-District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller vowed to retry the manslaughter charges before a different magistrate, arguing that Sinclair had committed errors of law.

But Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest ruled that Sinclair would hear the charges again. Shapiro did not appeal that ruling.

“It’s silly to ask the same judge for a different outcome,” Parks Miller, who was voted out of office last year, said in a phone interview. “Everyone knew he’s not going to give one.”

Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler

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