This article was originally published on GoErie.com by Ed Palattella on March 16, 2018
One of the three Erie County defendants accused in the hazing death of a now-closed Penn State fraternity is no longer facing the most serious charges that had been refiled against him, including felony aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office on Thursday withdrew the assault and manslaughter charges against the defendant, Joseph Sala, 19, of Erie, and other defendants in the case. Sala still faces lesser charges, including 14 counts of recklessly endangering another person as a second-degree misdemeanor.
“These charges should have never been filed in the first place, let alone refiled,” Sala’s lawyer, Leonard Ambrose, of Erie, said of the dismissed counts.
The Attorney General’s Office said it will continue to pursue involuntary manslaughter charges against five other former members of Beta Theta Pi in the February 2017 death in State College of 19-year-old pledge Tim Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey.
But the manslaughter charges are misdemeanors that do not carry the lengthy prison sentences that aggravated assault charges would have. Also, the Attorney General’s Office dropped all charges against the shuttered fraternity as a corporation.
Another Erie County defendant, Parker Yochim, 20, of Waterford, was never charged with aggravated assault or manslaughter, according to court records. He still faces lesser charges, including 14 counts of recklessly endangering another person, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
The third Erie County defendant, Joshua Kurczewski, 19, of Erie, remains charged with aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter and lesser offenses.
But he was charged later than the other defendants and the Attorney General’s Office still must review his case, said his lawyer, Jeffrey Veitch, of Erie. Veitch said he expects the assault and manslaughter charges to be withdrawn against Kurczewski.
Kurczewski, Yochim and Sala are free on bond or their own recognizance.
In Sala’s case, he was originally charged with aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter and the other counts, but in September a district judge in Centre County dismissed the assault and manslaughter counts against him and other defendants.
Then-Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller refiled the charges in October. But in November, the incoming district attorney, Bernie Cantorna, who defeated Parks Miller in the Democratic primary in May, asked the Attorney General’s Office to take over the case due to a conflict of interest.
On Thursday, 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, including Sala and Yochim.
“Our review is ongoing,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement. “These charges represent one part of our investigation, and we will have further information to release as our review moves forward.”
The notice of charges and amendments filed Thursday said prosecutors are still pursuing charges of hazing, reckless endangerment, conspiracy and alcohol law violations.
Shapiro said the charging decisions came after a comprehensive review.
“We will seek justice for the Piazza family,” he 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 told the Associated Press.
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.