Penn State Hazing Death Case Picks Up Steam With July Preliminary Hearing, First Sentencing

Gene J. PuskarAP Images

The criminal case against members of a Pennsylvania State fraternity, where a 19-year-old pledge died after a night of hazing, is to move forward in late July.

Centre County’s president judge, Pamela Ruest scheduled a five-day preliminary hearing to start on July 23 to determine whether several reinstated charges merit a trial.

The latest development, as reported by the AP, comes after Ruest granted a request by the attorney general’s office to bring back charges against eight defendants, five of whom are to face involuntary manslaughter counts.

Ruest, who pushed back the hearing in December last year, days before it was slated to begin, also replaced a magisterial district judge who had dismissed charges twice before.

The July 23 hearing is to consider refiled charges against Braxton Becker after a district judge in May scrapped them. Becker is accused of evidence tampering, hindering apprehension and obstruction for purportedly deleting security video from the now suspended Beta Theta Pi fraternity’s basement, where Tim Piazza was found barely alive after a night of drinking and misfortune in February 2017.

The charges against Joshua Kurczewski, including reckless endangerment, conspiracy to commit hazing and furnishing alcohol to a minor, have also been reinstituted.

Aside from the July 23 hearing, two deadlines hang in the case. July 24 marks the date by which lawyers for Ryan Burke need to submit documents related to his sentencing after he entered a guilty plea on June 13. Burke accepted responsibility for all of the nine charges against him, including four counts of hazing and five alcohol-related infractions.

July 16 is to see the convening of a pretrial conference on dozens of still pending counts against several defendants, awaiting trial.

The litigation, one of the largest against a fraternity, has so far involved 26 fraternity brothers. A dozen of them faced charges for the first time in November of last year, when the FBI recovered erased security footage. The video shows that on February 2, fraternity members gave Piazza, a 19-year-old engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey, at least 18 drinks in less than 90 minutes.

Piazza’s alcohol-blood content that night, when he partook in an initiation ceremony, was between 0.28 percent and 0.36 percent, or nearly four times the legal threshold for drivers.

Piazza died in a hospital two days later, after suffering a shattered spleen and a fractured skull. Fraternity brothers took 40 minutes to call an ambulance after they found him unconscious in the basement the morning after the party.