When things get hazy: who’s accountable in hazing-related deaths?

Tim Piazza, 19, died after an alleged hazing ritual at a Penn State fraternity. His death has not only brought the dangers of hazing back into the spotlight, but also presented the question, “who’s to blame?”

Photo: Tim Piazza and parents, Patrick Carns, AP (Courtesy of Google Images)

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.  At this point, many people are aware of the tragic death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza, who died in February following his first night of pledging at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at Penn State.  Members of the fraternity (which was supposed to be alcohol-free at Penn State as a result of a suspension eight years ago) reportedly set up an obstacle course called “The Gauntlet” in which pledges like Piazza were forced to binge drink excessive amounts of alcohol.  Soon after, security cameras captured Piazza falling down a 15-foot flight of stairs.  Later, it would be estimated that Piazza’s blood-alcohol level rose to between 0.28 and 0.36 percent—more than four times the legal limit for drivers in Pennsylvania.

According to NBC News, fraternity members allegedly carried Piazza upstairs after he fell, and “were seen on camera trying to slap Piazza awake.”  At other times, fraternity members allegedly sat on his unconscious body and struck him in the abdomen.  Yet out of the numerous fraternity members, pledges, and guests in attendance, no one volunteered to seek help for Piazza.  He was left alone, fading in and out of consciousness.  Shortly after midnight, Piazza managed to move around, stumbling as he made his way back to the basement.

According to an article by ABC News, fraternity members waited until the next morning, about 12 hours after Piazza’s fall, to call 911.  One fraternity brother stated he “felt cold to the touch, his skin appeared pale, and his eyes remained half-open.”  According to prosecutor Parks Miller, another fraternity brother, upon finally noticing Piazza’s grave situation, quickly Googled: “How will nine drinks in an hour affect a 200-pound guy?” Piazza was eventually taken to a hospital, where he was found to have suffered “a brain injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung.”  Piazza died shortly after being taken to the hospital. ABC News noted the forensic pathologist in Piazza’s case found that his death “was the direct result of traumatic brain injuries.”

“It’s not the fact that he drank. He drank because we hazed him too. Main word being hazed.”

The fraternity brothers seemed to know they were in hot water, as seen in the seemingly incriminating texts they sent shortly after the incident.  One text from the fraternity’s pledge master stated, “I don’t want to go to jail for this.”  The same pledge master went on to send, “I think we’re f—ed.”  ABC News reported yet another member texted, “Make sure the pledges keep quiet about last night and this situation.” Perhaps the most damning text of all read:  “It’s not the fact that he drank. He drank because we hazed him too. Main word being hazed.”  Tim’s father, James Piazza, acknowledged the texts as evidence of the fraternity members’ guilt, stating they took actions “they all knew were wrong and illegal.”

After the incident, Penn State reportedly made several changes on campus, including a “a ban on all social activities involving alcohol for the rest of the semester, monitoring of school events to prevent underage or excessive drinking, and probation and immediate revocation of a Greek-letter chapter’s status if rules are violated.”  The Beta Theta Pi fraternity has since been permanently barred from Penn State and suspended by the Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity, but the loss of their beloved frat house may be the least of the brothers’ worries.

Eighteen former members of Beta Theta Pi have been charged with crimes relating to Piazza’s death; eight have been charged with “involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and hazing, among other charges” and six have been charged with “evidence tampering.”  There was also an adult athletic trainer living in the house at the time, but according to the criminal presentment, he was not notified of Piazza’s condition and has not been charged with any crime.

Steve Trialonas, one of the defense attorneys, responded to the State’s allegations, stating, “The government assumes that these young men, many of whom were intoxicated themselves, should have been able to differentiate symptoms of extreme intoxication from symptoms of a life threatening head injury. That is an impossible burden to place on them.”  According to ABC News, none of the defendants have entered pleas at this time. Piazza’s parents have also indicated their intent to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the fraternity members, as well as against Penn State.  According to CNN, Penn State is also facing “two other separate lawsuits related to hazing.”

The preliminary hearing on Monday, July 10, quickly turned into a shouting match between opposing counsel after prosecutors introduced some of the text messages.  Ted Simon, the defense attorney for fraternity brother Luke Visser, accused Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller of leaving out key portions of evidence.  Parks Miller reportedly shouted back “Shame on you! You’re lying to the judge.”  NBC News reported Judge Allen Sinclair “seemed reluctant to step in” during the courtroom squabble.

“Who made the decision to drink? The pledge or someone else?”

At other points in the hearing, defense lawyers seem to hold Piazza accountable for his own death;  Frank Fina, lawyer for former Beta Theta Pi president Brendan Young, asked State College Police Detective David Scicchitano on cross-examination, “Who made the decision to drink? The pledge or someone else?” The Detective maintained that Young, as president, “had total authority to stop all this. He didn’t.” Tom Kline, the Piazza’s lawyer, told reporters after the hearing “This wasn’t free will.”

During the hearings, prosecutors introduced not only the text messages as evidence of the fraternity’s guilt, but also the security footage from inside the fraternity on the night Piazza suffered his injuries.  Piazza’s parents refused to see the video of the tragic hours leading up to their son’s death, even as it was played during the hearing, stating, “I don’t wanna see it as a parent, because I feel like it’s gonna be incredibly painful… And the last memories of my son will be him being abused for 12 hours and dying a slow and painful death.”

Hazing deaths are not exactly unknown in the United States.  In 1873, a man name Mortimer N. Leggett died during a hazing ritual at Cornell University, after he fell into a gorge after being blindfolded and taken into the woods.  In 1912, a man named William Rand died in a class hazing stunt at UNC Chapel Hill after falling off a barrel onto a broken bottle, which severed his jugular vein; he bled to death seven minutes later.  More recently, a student named Nolan Burch, 18, died of alcohol poisoning in 2014 at a West Virginia University fraternity initiation; his blood alcohol content measured at .493 percent.  Burch’s mentor and “big brother” at the Kappa Sigma fraternity, Richard Schwartz, was charged with one count of hazing and one count of conspiracy to commit hazing. He was eventually required to perform 100 hours of community service and take an “alcohol-awareness course.”

“In 95% of the cases where students identified their experience as hazing, they did not report the events to campus officials.”

The widespread nature of hazing in the United States is also evidenced in a comprehensive University of Maine study, which found that “55% of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing.”  There are many public aspects to hazing, as displayed in the fact that “25% of coaches or organization advisors were aware of the group’s hazing behaviors; 25% of the behaviors occurred on campus in a public space” and “students talk with peers (48%, 41%) or family (26%) about their hazing experiences.”  The study also noted “More students perceive positive rather than negative outcomes of hazing.”  Most importantly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that “in 95% of the cases where students identified their experience as hazing, they did not report the events to campus officials.”

The majority of states have enacted laws prohibiting hazing, including Pennsylvania, whose law makes hazing a misdemeanor of the third degree for “any person who causes or participates in hazing.”  Of note, North Carolina’s statute makes engaging in hazing, aiding, or abetting any other student in hazing, a Class 2 misdemeanor.   North Carolina also has a statute which provides protection from indictment for “any student or other person subpoenaed as a witness” who testifies in hazing trials on behalf of the State.  This statute has the effect of encouraging those with first-hand knowledge of a hazing incident to come forward and testify without fear of criminal charges.

Acceptance was likely the reason the brothers failed to immediately call 911 or get help from the University.  Psychologists note the brothers’ response (or lack thereof) is an apparent example of “groupthink,” which is the fact that “human desire for group consensus can undermine common sense—and even lead to irrational actions.”  Acceptance is likely also the reason Piazza continued to drink when the consequences were so grave.  At 19, one is just beginning the stages of adulthood, and likely grasping for acceptance in all areas of life.  But Piazza did not find the acceptance he was hoping for in the bottom of a red solo cup, and now the men he once believed would be his “future brothers” will possibly be held accountable for his death.

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About Lizzie Yelverton, Editor-in-Chief (10 Articles)
Lizzie Yelverton is a third year law student and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the Campbell Law Observer. She grew up in the small farming town of Eureka, NC, before moving to Raleigh to attend North Carolina State University. In 2015, Lizzie graduated from NC State with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in Philosophy. The year following her first year of law school, Lizzie worked as an intern for Senator Floyd B. McKissick, Jr. in the North Carolina General Assembly. Lizzie is the Public Relations Chair for Women in Law, as well as a member of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Campbell Law Innocence Project. Over the summer, Lizzie served as a law clerk at the law office of Baddour, Parker, Hine, & Hale, P.C.