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Prosecutors Seek Jail Time for Guilty Plea in Beta Theta Pi Case

by on July 28, 2018 12:05 AM

The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General has requested jail time as part of the sentence for the first, and to date only, defendant to plead guilty in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity hazing case.

Ryan L. Burke, 21, of Scranton, pleaded guilty in June to four misdemeanor counts of hazing, four misdemeanor counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor and a summary offense of underage drinking. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday by Centre County Judge Brian Marshall.

In a sentencing memorandum, Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo asked Marshall to consider imposing a period of incarceration of up to three months for the hazing charge in which fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza was the victim. 

Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State sophomore, 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.

In addition to Burke, 23 others still face a variety of charges in the case. A trial for most of those defendants is scheduled to begin in February 2019.

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.

For the hazing charges, which are third-degree misdemeanors, standard sentencing guidelines for a first-time offender such as Burke are probation, community service and fines. If aggravating circumstances are found, sentencing can include up to three months in jail.

Zarallo argued that the hazing of Piazza has an aggravating factor. Burke and others who provided Piazza with alcohol were aware of the potential consequences, Zarallo wrote. If Piazza had survived or even not fallen at all, Burke would still be guilty of hazing because the pledges felt pressured to drink excessively for acceptance into the fraternity, according to Zarallo.

"The fact that the act of hazing under count 1 before this court was a direct link to Mr. Piazza's death is an aggravating factor that warrants sentencing in the aggravated range of 90 days incarceration," Zarallo wrote.

For the alcohol charges, Burke likely will face fines of $100 to $500 for each count.

Burke entered an open guilty plea, meaning he had no deal with the prosecution for a sentencing recommendation. Zarallo wrote that while Marshall will consider that in sentencing, he should also consider that because Burke's actions are clearly captured on video, the plea "can be as much a capitulation to the strength of the evidence as it is an acceptance of responsibility."

After Burke entered his plea in June, his attorney, Philip Masorti, said Burke wanted to accept responsibility.

"He is accepting responsibility for his involvement in this tragic event," Masorti said at the time. "There are too few words to describe a loss so great. This young man understands that. Condolences go to the Piazza family. This is a tragedy and he is anxious to make amends.

"I respect the Attorney General's office for bringing the prosecution and we certainly have faith in the judiciary and Judge Marshall in imposing a sentence that they deem appropriate based on his conduct that night."

Included with the prosecution's sentencing memorandum was a six-page victim impact statement by Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn.

Both parents discussed how they, along with their other son, Michael, struggle daily with Tim's death.

"Our family is incomplete and it will be forever," Jim Piazza wrote. "We keep trying to fill the void but there is no way to replace what we lost."

He also wrote that he was glad Burke pleaded guilty but that he questioned Burke's remorse and said the fraternity brothers knew what they were doing.

"He had more than a year to come forward to cooperate with and help the prosecutors," Jim Piazza wrote. "He did not do anything until charges were carried over against him. I'm sure his attorneys will argue he is a first-time offender. However, he is not a first-time offender, this just happens to be the first time he got caught.

"This was no accident. Tim was killed. It was a well-planned, well-orchestrated initiation ritual with the objective of feeding the pledges excessive and potentially lethal amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. This group of fraternity members were playing Russian roulette with the pledges. Tim just happened to catch the bullet."

Evelyn Piazza wrote that "a statement needs to be made" to help prevent other students and parents from going through the same experience. She wrote about seeing her son on life support and being brought to his bed by an ICU nurse to "kiss your baby goodbye," because he was about to die.

"This is HELL! And I am still not on speaking terms with God," she wrote. "My faith is shattered because my heart is shattered. I cannot understand how this could happen or why no one could call for help when he fell and was obviously unconscious and hurt.

"I am acutely aware every day that he is not here because of other people's cruelty and self-preservation, and I am devastated without him... Our pain will never go away but please help others avoid this nightmare."

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