People were shocked earlier this month when a Centre County judge dismissed nearly all of the charges pertaining to the death of a Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge at Penn State University. In all, 18 fraternity members faced criminal charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to tampering in the death of Timothy Piazza.
The judge has not commented on why he dismissed the charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and many other hazing-related charges. Some, however, have speculated that the case fell apart due to prosecutorial overreach and a rushed investigation.
Alleged actions did not fit the charges
Pennsylvania’s involuntary manslaughter law requires prosecutors to prove that the actions of each fraternity member facing that charge were a direct cause of Piazza’s death or that they knew their actions would lead to serious injuries or death. To prove aggravated assault, prosecutors would have to prove that any defendant acted maliciously.
The prosecutor also charged the fraternity brothers as taking part in a criminal conspiracy, meaning all of their individual actions added up to the death. Defense attorneys, however, argued that this was not a valid approach to this case, because there was no proof the members conspired to commit involuntary manslaughter. Instead, there was just a party with a heavy amount of drinking involved.
Defense attorneys had argued that there was no proof that any of the members’ individual actions directly caused Piazza’s death, and that the fraternity had held numerous parties before without serious injury or death.
Everyone facing criminal charges has rights
Many had also argued that the prosecutor rushed the investigation to help her election chances. In cases like this that gain significant media attention, it can be difficult for those facing charges to fight back a prosecutor trying to sway public opinion.
While it is tragic that a student lost his life, it is also important to realize that the people facing these charges also had rights. They are entitled to the same due process rights as everyone else, including the presumption of innocence. When a judge dismisses charges like in this case, it is sending an important message to prosecutors that they have to build cases the right way and must respect the rights of the accused.