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Former Beta Theta Pi Brother Pleads Guilty To Hazing Charges In Piazza Case

A former Beta Theta Pi brother on Wednesday entered a guilty plea to hazing and alcohol charges stemming from the February 2017 death of fraternity pledge and Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza.

Ryan Burke, 21, of Scranton, pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of hazing, four misdemeanor counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor and a summary offense of underage drinking. He is the first defendant in the case to plead guilty to charges for playing a role in the alcohol-fueled fraternity initiation event that led to Piazza’s death.

Burke entered the plea before Centre County Judge Brian Marshall, who scheduled sentencing for July 31 following a pre-sentence investigation by the county Probation and Parole Department.

“It’s important for the court to note he is accepting responsibility,” Philip Masorti, Burke’s attorney, said during the proceeding. “We know the evidence they have. He is comfortable accepting responsibility.”

Burke entered an open plea, meaning he has no assurances about sentencing, which will be determined at Marshall’s discretion. As a third-degree misdemeanor, the maximum sentence for hazing is one year in jail for each count. However, standard sentencing guidelines for a first-time offender such as Burke call for probation or up to three months confinement for each count if aggravating circumstances are found. The alcohol charges are expected to carry a fine of $100 to $500 each.

“He is accepting responsibility for his involvement in this tragic event,” Masorti said outside of the Centre County Courthouse Annex Wednesday afternoon. “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.”

Masorti said he did not ask for a plea agreement for Burke and one was not offered by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office.

Burke was among the second set of 12 defendants charged in November after the recovery of surveillance video footage from the night of Feb. 2, 2017 in the Beta Theta Pi basement. The video showed fraternity brothers giving Piazza 18 alcoholic drinks in the period of 82 minutes before he fell head-first down the basement steps. Piazza died on Feb. 4 as a result of brain injuries and internal bleeding.

Burke gave a bottle of vodka to Piazza and three other pledges to drink.

During Wednesday’s plea, Burke acknowledged in a series of questions from Masorti and Marshall that he understood he was surrendering most of his right to appeal and to discovery in the case and that he understood the potential penalties for a plea. 

When charges were initially filed in November, Burke was charged with a felony count of aggravated assault as well as misdemeanor counts of involuntary manslaughter and simple assault. Those charges were withdrawn after the Attorney General’s office took over the case in January.

After a preliminary hearing in May, District Judge Steven Lachman dismissed a charge of recklessly endangering another person and four counts of furnishing alcohol to minors against Burke.

A total of 24 other former Beta Theta Pi brothers face trial on a variety of charges in the case. A trial for 14 of the defendants is scheduled for August.

About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

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

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