Pennsylvania prosecutors on Thursday dropped all assault charges against members of a now-closed Penn State fraternity in the hazing death of a pledge, sparing defendants the most serious allegations any had faced.
The state attorney general's office said it will continue to pursue involuntary manslaughter charges against five former members of Beta Theta Pi in the February 2017 death of 19-year-old pledge Tim Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey. But those misdemeanors do not carry the lengthy prison sentences that aggravated assault charges would have.
Local prosecutors had been handling the case, but a new county district attorney referred it to the state. The attorney general's office informed a judge ahead of a hearing next week about the status of charges against 14 of the 26 men accused in the case.
"Our review is ongoing," Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. "These charges represent one part of our investigation, and we will have further information to release as our review moves forward."
A judge had thrown out the most serious charges September after a marathon preliminary hearing, but the county prosecutor at the time refiled them, including eight felony aggravated assault charges.
The notice of charges and amendments being filed Thursday said prosecutors are still pursuing a charges of hazing, reckless endangerment, conspiracy and alcohol law violations. Eleven defendants are expected at the hearing next week.
It also noted no changes were being made to charges against three other defendants whose allegations previously had been sent to county court for trial. Also, all charges were dropped against the shuttered fraternity as a corporation.
The prosecutors' decision means some defendants no longer face involuntary manslaughter charges, in addition to the dropped assault charges.
"That's good news," said Rocco Cipparone, defense attorney for Michael Bonatucci, "because I thought that he never should have been charged with those things anyway." Bonatucci's most serious charges are being dropped.
Attorney Michael J. Engle, who represents Gary DiBileo Jr., said he was glad the aggravated assault charge was taken off the table.
"We do disagree with the continued pursuit of the charge involving involuntary manslaughter as it relates to Gary, given that the evidence shows he was one of a few people who advocated for Timothy Piazza to receive medical help," Engle said.
Shapiro said the charging decisions came after a comprehensive review.
"We will seek justice for the Piazza family," Shapiro said. "My office is committed to holding every responsible individual accountable for their actions."
Piazza, a sophomore engineering student, attended a pledge bid acceptance night at the fraternity on Feb. 2, 2017, an event that included a gauntlet of drinking stations and a party with alcohol. Investigators said he had been given at least 18 drinks over 90 minutes.
A lawyer who represents his parents, Tom Kline, said they were most pleased by the reinstatement of some of the involuntary manslaughter charges.
"With hundreds of charges against 26 individuals facing serious jail time, the Piazzas remain hopeful that justice will be accomplished and support the Pennsylvania attorney general in this nationally important prosecution," Kline said.
The house's elaborate system of security cameras recorded others helping a visibly intoxicated Tim Piazza to a couch, after which he stumbled toward basement steps and fell down them. He had to be carried back upstairs.
The cameras showed how Piazza stumbled in the dark on the first floor of the house over the night. Fraternity members located him unconscious in the basement the next morning but waited 40 minutes to summon help.
Piazza had a dangerous amount of alcohol in his system and suffered a fractured skull and shattered spleen.