Ex-Penn State fraternity members to return to court in case of pledge’s death
Credit: Piazza Family (STATE COLLEGE, Pa.) — Former Penn State fraternity members are headed back to court Monday over charges in connection with the death of pledge Timothy Piazza, who was fatally injured at the fraternity house earlier this year.
Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore and pledge at Beta Theta Pi, died on Feb. 4 after he fell down the stairs during a night of drinking for a pledge ceremony at the house on the night of Feb. 2. Fraternity members did not call 911 until the morning of Feb. 3, about 12 hours after Piazza’s fall, according to a report on the grand jury’s investigation. Piazza’s death “was the direct result of traumatic brain injuries,” according to the forensic pathologist.
Eighteen Penn State students are facing charges: eight for involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and hazing, among other charges; four for reckless endangerment and hazing, among other charges; and six for evidence tampering. The Beta Theta Pi fraternity — which has since been barred from Penn State — is facing charges including involuntary manslaughter and hazing. The students have not entered pleas.
A preliminary hearing, which began last month with testimony from a detective and the showing of surveillance video, is expected to continue today. A judge will decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial, and the surveillance video is a key part of that evidence.
Piazza’s fall was not seen on video, but it shows him after the fall being carried upstairs by four fraternity members with a large bruise visible on his body, which prosecutors say was from a spleen injury. The brothers put Piazza on a couch but did not stabilize his head and neck, the video appears to show, and the 19-year-old fell off the couch.
The video appears to show the fraternity brothers putting a backpack on Piazza so he would not roll onto his back and choke on his vomit; as they placed the backpack on, Piazza’s head snapped backward and moved frequently. That night Piazza’s blood alcohol content reached three times the legal limit.
At one point, the detective testified the video appears to show one fraternity brother grabbing Piazza’s shoes and throwing them at him. The same brother appears to hit Piazza in the abdomen area, the detective testified, which his defense attorney contested in court.
Around 3 a.m., Piazza gets up and falls to the floor, hitting his head again. A fraternity brother starts to drag him, the video appears to show, and then leaves him on the floor, throwing a blanket over him.
About an hour later, while the video is in black and white in night-vision mode, it appears to show Piazza moving into the fetal position many times, also cradling his head a few times.
Later the video appears to show Piazza get up and walk into a wall, and then fall head first. Next he gets up again and walks into the side of the stairs railing, and falls down onto the stone floor, the video appears to show. Piazza gets up again and walks toward the front door, before he staggers and slams into the door, the video appears to show.
Throughout the night, Piazza is rolling on the floor, getting up, stumbling back down and slamming into the stairs or furniture, the video shows. At one point, a brother comes over to him, Piazza gets up and walks with him, then falls down another set of stairs. The fraternity brother apparently leaves him on the ground. All night long, Piazza is either holding his stomach, lying down in a fetal position, or holding his head.
Around 7 a.m., a fraternity pledge was sitting on a couch watching Piazza, and took either a photo or video of Piazza in that condition, a detective said in court.
After the pledge left the room and Piazza was alone, Piazza went to the basement.
Two hours later, he was carried out of the basement by four fraternity brothers.
The fraternity brothers were seen standing around Piazza but the prosecution pointed out that no one administered CPR. A few brothers appear to touch him or shake him, the detective testified the video shows.
As the minutes tick by, without calling for help, prosecutors said “it appears they are cleaning him.” Fraternity members tried to dress Piazza but couldn’t because his body was too rigid, the detective said.
Forty-two minutes after finding Piazza in the basement and first realizing he was cold and stiff, a fraternity member called 911 and other fraternity members cleaned up “evidence of beer and alcohol,” the detective said.
Prosecutors claim the fraternity brothers waited to get Piazza help in an attempt to cover up their drinking and “coordinate a story.”
One defense attorneys in the case told ABC News earlier, “Of course, it’s a tragedy. But that doesn’t mean there’s any intent involved in any of this.”
A defense attorney for Joseph Ems Jr., one of the frat brothers charged in the case with reckless endangerment, said his client was one of many people present that night who was unaware of the extent of Piazza’s injuries.
“This is not somebody who’s got a gaping head wound that’s gushing blood. This is somebody who’s blood alcohol was three times the legal limit and apparently had some internal injuries,” said Ems Jr.’s attorney, William J. Brennan.
“He probably looked like just another frat kid,” Brennan said.
Piazza family attorney Tom Kline told ABC News last month, “The video is horrific, it is gruesome, it is something that you couldn’t imagine until you’ve seen it.”
“Seeing the videotape of the young man who was force-fed alcohol, had his own shoes thrown at him, beer thrown on him, punched, sat on, and then left literally to die,” Kline said. “It’s something that you just can’t think could be possible, anywhere, let alone in a fraternity house on a campus of an American university.
“The hardest part of the video for me to watch was to see Tim Piazza on the floor with no shirt on struggling for life alone, left alone in the middle of the night,” Kline said. “Trying to raise to his feet in a praying position, and falling back down. There is no one who could see that whose heart wouldn’t cry and whose eyes wouldn’t shed tears.”
The Piazza family is planning on filing a lawsuit against the fraternity members and the university.
Earlier this month, Penn State announced proposals for new safety reforms, including: having university staff members monitor social events; the university taking control of the fraternity and sorority misconduct and adjudication process; and permanent revocation of university recognition for any chapter involved in “hazing that involves alcohol, physical abuse, or any behavior that puts a student’s mental or physical health at risk.”
Penn State President Eric Barron said, “There are other measures being discussed and will be instituted over time — all with a focus on prevention, monitoring and enforcement. These measures augment a series of actions taken earlier this year, which are being made permanent.”
Barron added, “I am resolved to turn the pain and anguish radiating through our entire community into decisive action and reform, concentrating on the safety and well-being of students at Penn State.”
Penn State’s Interfraternity Council said, “We agree that added social restrictions, education, transparency and professional staff support are critical. We have tried to remain committed to being an active part of the solution within our community. We stand firm on our belief that when students are involved in collaborating with the university in monitoring and accountability, a greater impact is made. For that reason, we will continue to push for a partnership between student leaders and the university.”
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