National News

Ex-Fraternity Member at Penn State Is First to Plead Guilty in Hazing Death

Posted June 13, 2018 11:26 p.m. EDT

A former fraternity member at Penn State University on Wednesday became the first person to plead guilty in a case stemming from the death of a pledge after a binge-drinking hazing ritual, an episode that roiled the campus and prompted a move to toughen anti-hazing laws.

Ryan Burke, 21, a former member of the university’s Beta Theta Pi chapter, pleaded guilty in a Pennsylvania court to nine misdemeanor charges, including four counts of hazing and five counts involving unlawful acts related to alcoholic beverages. He is to be sentenced on July 31.

Timothy Piazza was 19 when he died in February 2017 after drinking copious amounts of alcohol at the instruction of fraternity members and falling numerous times, injuring his brain and rupturing his spleen.

Burke, who is from Scranton, Pennsylvania, had been accused of forcing Piazza to drink from a bottle of vodka at the party, according to prosecutors. Twenty-five other defendants have entered not-guilty pleas and are awaiting trial, Tom Kline, a lawyer for Piazza’s parents, Evelyn and James Piazza, said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

Kline said the Piazzas were pleased to see at least one of the former fraternity members accept responsibility. “They encourage others to follow in his footsteps,” he said. “This is a significant event in the face of resistance of every individual in this criminal case.”

Burke’s lawyer, Philip Masorti, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Masorti said outside the courthouse on Wednesday that Piazza’s death was a “tragedy” and that Burke is “anxious to make amends,” The Associated Press reported.

On the night of Piazza’s death, the pledges were forced to participate in various drinking stations, including chugging vodka and beer, drinking from a wine bag and playing beer pong. Piazza eventually tumbled down a flight of stairs, and fraternity members did not call an ambulance until nearly 12 hours after the ordeal began, according to court documents.

In September, a Pennsylvania judge dismissed the most serious charges against eight members of the fraternity chapter indicted in Piazza’s death, including involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and simple assault.

A bill that would increase the highest potential penalty for hazing charges is being considered by Pennsylvania’s legislature. The bill, spurred by Piazza’s death, would make hazing a third-degree felony in the case of bodily injury or death and could result in a punishment of seven years in prison. Currently, hazing is considered a misdemeanor in the state.