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Former Beta Theta Pi Brother Sentenced for Role in Piazza Case

by on July 31, 2018 2:42 PM

The first defendant to plead guilty to charges in connection with the death of Penn State fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza will avoid jail time.

Ryan L. Burke, 21, of Scranton, was sentenced on Tuesday to three months of house arrest and 27 months of probation after pleading guilty in June to four counts of hazing and five alcohol charges. He also was ordered to pay a total of $3,750 in fines plus court costs and to perform 100 hours of community service.

Centre County Judge Brian Marshall allowed Burke to carry out his sentence in Lackawanna County.

Piazza, a 19-year-from Lebanon, N.J., died on Feb. 4, 2017 as a result of brain injuries and internal bleeding sustained after falling while intoxicated during an alcohol-fueled fraternity initiation event at the now-banned Beta Theta Pi chapter. Fraternity members waited nearly 12 hours after Piazza's first fall, head-first down the basement stairs, before calling for help.

At Tuesday's sentencing hearing, Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo asked Marshall to impose a sentence of 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service for the hazing count tied to Piazza. Burke's attorney, Philip Masorti, asked for one year of court supervision and 200 hours of community service.

As a third-degree misdemeanor, standard sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders call for probation and fines, but with aggravating circumstances could include up to three months in jail. Marshall said that Burke's case had an aggravating factor, but also a mitigating factor in his entering an early plea. Burke was sentenced to an Intermediate Punishment Program on the first count of hazing, which includes the three months of home detention.

Masorti said afterward he believed the sentence was fair. Burke did not speak outside of the courthouse, but spoke briefly during the sentencing, expressing his sorrow to the Piazza family and saying he accepted responsibility for his role on the night of Tim Piazza's injuries.

Burke was "rush chair" and brother in charge of recruitment for the Beta Theta Pi chapter. As seen on fraternity house surveillance video, Burke was present for, but did not provide alcohol during, "the gauntlet," a series of drinking stations in which pledges were encouraged to rapidly consume vodka, wine and beer.

During the party that followed the gauntlet, Burke was among the brothers who provided Piazza with 18 drinks in a period of 82 minutes. Burke approached Piazza and three other pledges and gave them a bottle of vodka from which to drink.

Burke also was among the brothers who carried an unconscious Piazza upstairs from the basement after Piazza's fall.

On Tuesday, Zarallo displayed video from the night showing Burke's actions. After Piazza was brought upstairs and placed on a couch, Zarallo noted that Burke jumped on the couch next to him and rolled over on Piazza when Burke got up to leave. Zarallo called it "callous."

Masorti, however, said Burke only thought that Piazza had too much to drink. He added that as the night went on and Piazza's condition worsened, someone should have called for help for Piazza, but that Burke had been gone from the house for hours at that point.

Masorti also said that Burke never forced alcohol on Piazza or other pledges and that the event was celebratory and friendly. He also said that Piazza chose to rush the fraternity, take part in the initiation and to consume alcohol.

Zarallo countered that Burke's interactions with Piazza and other pledges appeared for the sole purpose of giving them alcohol and that the hazing statute presumes force and is applied "consent notwithstanding."

Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn, were present for the sentencing hearing and read emotional victim impact statements that had previously been entered as part of a sentencing memorandum filed by the attorney general's office.

"Tim was killed," Jim Piazza said. "These fraternity members knew what they were doing was illegal in many ways. They knew they were putting the pledges in harm's way. They had people injured in prior semesters and covered it up. When Tim got hurt, they were hoping for a miracle and instead let him die alone in a basement. They were more interested in protecting themselves and their organization than saving a young man's life. I have no doubt that if not for the video they would have made up a story about what happened to Tim. Fortunately, the video doesn't lie."

Burke originally was charged with additional counts including felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, which were withdrawn by the Attorney General's office earlier this year. At a preliminary hearing in May, a district judge dismissed a charge of recklessly endangering another person and additional alcohol offenses.

Two dozen other former fraternity members still face a variety of charges in the case. Most are scheduled to go to trial in February 2019.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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