Penn State pledge's death triggers tough anti-hazing bill

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A Pennsylvania lawmaker has proposed a bill that would make severe hazing a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison — and fraternity houses where the hazing happened subject to confiscation.

Flanked by the family of Timothy Piazza, the 19-year-old who died after an alcohol-fueled fraternity pledge event at Penn State University last year, state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican, said at a press conference Friday that the new bill would create "tiers" of hazing offenses. That means hazing could be a third-degree misdemeanor if it resulted in bodily injury and a third-degree felony if it resulted in serious bodily injury or death.

"This is something that's been extremely important because under current law dealing with hazing, prosecutors can only charge M2s, misdemeanor twos, which may not reflect the severity of the crime," Corman said.

Organizations, such as fraternities and sororities, and institutions, such as colleges and universities, would also be subject to these tiers, and if they knowingly promoted hazing, they could be subject to property forfeiture, Corman added.

"This would now hold organizations that do not step up to be accountable for their actions," the lawmaker said.

Corman's voice was choked with emotion as he praised Piazza's parents for their role in the bill.

"We're here today because of the courage of Jim and Evelyn Piazza," he said. "As a parent, if it were me, I probably would have crawled into my bed, pulled up the covers, and stayed there. But because of their courage, we are here to make sure that this never happens again."

Corman — calling it the "largest and most comprehensive rewrite of the hazing law" in Pennsylvania and possibly the entire country — said the bill is expected to be considered by the state Senate in April and is "very confident" it would pass.

While some other states classify hazing as a felony, the Pennsylvania bill goes further by making it a third-degree felony and also subjecting the groups responsible to forfeiture. The bill also includes an amnesty provision, which would protect someone who places an emergency call to get help for the victim from criminal prosecution of hazing and underage drinking.

In court testimony, doctors have said they believe Piazza may have survived his injuries had an ambulance been called earlier.

Piazza's father, Jim, said as the bill was introduced that he was hopeful it would deter future hazing incidents.

"No more college students should die for just wanting to join an organization. This law, if enacted, will change the landscape in Pennsylvania and hopefully will become the model for states to adopt throughout the country," he said.

The new legislation, called the Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law, was announced on the same day that a preliminary hearing started for Penn State fraternity brothers charged in Piazza's hazing death. The hearing is for 11 of the 26 men charged in connection with Piazza's death in February 2017 and is to determine whether there is enough evidence to send the cases to trial.

The case follows a previous preliminary hearing last summer that became heated at times as prosecutors and defense attorneys sniped at one another. The most serious charges — aggravated assault — were dropped against the fraternity members in September.

Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey, died from injuries he suffered from falls, including one down a flight of stairs at the now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi house, during a pledge acceptance ceremony in which he became extremely intoxicated.

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Prosecutors say a video, which was recovered by authorities after being deleted, showed that Piazza was given at least 18 drinks in less than an hour and a half during the pledge event.

During this preliminary hearing — expected to go through next week — five of the defendants are still facing involuntary manslaughter charges, which carry a maximum punishment of 2-1/2 to five years in prison. Other charges include hazing, reckless endangerment, conspiracy and alcohol violations.

The ex-Beta members have denied all charges.

Corman's anti-hazing legislation is backed by Penn State, which has also implemented measures to reform dangers within their Greek community since Piazza's death.

Ezra Kalplan reported from Bellefonte, and Elizabeth Chuck reported from New York.