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July 31, 2018

After guilty plea, frat member gets 3 months of house arrest and 27 months of probation for role in hazing death of Penn State pledge

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Penn State fraternity member gets house arrest in pledge death case," a high-profile college campus tragedy led to a notable state sentencing today in the heart of Pennsylvania.  Here are the details:

A Penn State fraternity member who plied a pledge with vodka the night he was fatally injured in a series of falls avoided jail time Tuesday when a judge sentenced him to three months of house arrest.

Ryan Burke, who had pleaded guilty to four counts of hazing and five alcohol violations, apologized to the parents of Tim Piazza, who died in February 2017 after a night of drinking and hazing in the Beta Theta Pi house. Burke said he was “truly sorry” and accepted responsibility for his role in the events that led to Piazza's death from severe head and abdominal injuries he suffered the night he accepted a pledge bid.

Centre County Judge Brian Marshall also gave Burke 27 months of probation, fined him more than $3,000 and ordered 100 hours of community service. “The court was shocked by what happened that night,” Marshall said, adding he was “mindful that there were many involved.”

Burke's defense attorney, Philip Masorti, said afterward he thought the sentence was fair.  “This was an accident that nobody wanted to happen,” he told Marshall. “It led to a tragic death.”

Burke, 21, of Scranton, is the only one so far to plead guilty in the case, in which more than two dozen members of the now-closed fraternity face charges. A hearing for some others is planned for next month, and trial for at least some will be in February.

Prosecutor Brian Zarallo with the attorney general's office said Burke took a leading role in what occurred, as he led the fraternity's effort to recruit new members and physically led them into a drinking station “gauntlet” that began a night of heavy drinking that was captured on the building's elaborate video security system. Piazza “didn't know what was waiting for him,” that night, Zarallo said. “The defendant did. The defendant knew exactly what was waiting for him.”

He played a videotape in which a ball cap-wearing Burke could be identified plying the wannabe members with a bottle of 80-proof vodka, and said Burke seemed nonchalant about Piazza's medical condition after he endured a bad fall down the basement steps. Burke “can't be bothered” and left Piazza for others to deal with him, Zarallo said, describing his actions as callous.

“This is a big joke to these people,” Zarallo said, telling the judge that five pledges vomited that night and one other injured an ankle.

Piazza's parents, who have become anti-hazing advocates, recounted the horror of being summoned to the hospital to find their son with a range of visible and very severe injuries, not far from the death that would soon follow....  Jim Piazza credited Burke for pleading guilty, but noted that occurred after a judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to send the case to county court for trial....

When Burke was first charged in November, he also was accused of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, simple assault and reckless endangerment, but the attorney general's office dropped the most serious charges in April and a district judge subsequently dismissed some other counts.

This other local article reports that prosecutors were asking for three months of imprisonment. I suspect that what prosecutors sought for a defendant who played a leading role, as well as the actual sentencing imposed, might have a big impact on the various charges still facing the other two dozen members of the fraternity.  It is likely that the sentence given to Burke will end up impacting future plea negotiations as well as any sentences that might be imposed on any defendants convicted after a trial.  In tragic incidents like this one in which is it so hard to know just what kind of sentence is "right" in response to unintended harms, I sense it becomes easier for lawyers and judges to gravitate toward sentences already imposed in related cases.

July 31, 2018 at 04:47 PM | Permalink


This conviction will make the tort claim one of negligence per se. And the chain of causation will not be broken by the superseding, intervening, unforeseen, voluntary conduct of the victim.

So the plaintiff lawyer, a dandy, will be able to buy another $10,000 Italian suit.

None of defense lawyers will have even heard of outcome bias, and certainly none will understand it to violate the procedural due process rights of the defendants.

Posted by: David Behar | Aug 1, 2018 12:01:30 AM

I'm a life-long criminal defense attorney (going on 15 years); I consider myself quite defense-minded. And even I think this sentence was too lenient. A jail sentence is warranted in this case, especially for someone who had a "leading role." I would have imposed a 6 month sentence, at least. This is one of the rare circumstances, in my opinion, where a custodial sentence would have a real general deterrent impact. Disappointing.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 1, 2018 12:56:35 AM

Dave. General deterrence means punishing a defendant to scare a future wrongdoer, the defendant has not met, over whom he has no control, and who has not yet formed an intent to commit a crime. Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo. Ding.

Do you think general deterrence violates the procedural due process right of a criminal defendant? Has that argument ever been made by the geniuses in the defense bar?

I think the phrase in a tribunal, to send a message, should be followed by an immediate motion for a mistrial, and the for the recusal of the dumbass on the bench because of such a violation.

Posted by: David Behar | Aug 1, 2018 9:00:42 AM

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