A Legal Outlook at the Penn State Hazing Crime

by John Waldron & Michael Stitt

The tragic hazing death of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza rocked the nation after harrowing details have been steadily revealed by countless news agencies in the last few months. Penn State is once again the center of controversy as many believe this young man’s death was preventable. Eighteen fraternity members have been criminally charged. Eight students face the most serious offenses including aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter. The remaining students are looking at lesser offenses to include hazing or furnishing alcohol to minors.

Timothy Piazza died earlier this year, on February 4, after pledging Beta Theta Pi to a Penn State fraternity. A grand jury has concluded that young Timothy drank a life-threatening amount of alcohol during a hazing ritual which caused numerous falls. Security cameras at the house show he fell down a 15-foot flight of stairs shortly after binge drinking, then fell several more times into a railing, on the floor, and down the stairs again, according to the grand jury’s presentment. The members of the fraternity didn’t call 911 until nearly 12 hours after Timothy’s first fall. Timothy suffered severe head trauma, a shattered spleen, and ultimately succumbed to traumatic brain injury. A forensic pathologist estimated his blood-alcohol content between .28 and .36 percent approximately four times the legal limit for driving.

The most serious charge is aggravated assault. A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he or she attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury intentionally, knowingly or recklessly under the circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. As charged, aggravated assault is a felony of the first degree. If convicted of aggravated assault, members face a maximum of 10 to 20 years in state prison. The other serious charge is involuntary manslaughter.

A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of the doing of an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, or the doing of a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, he or she causes the death of another person. Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor of the first degree.  If convicted of involuntary manslaughter, members face a maximum of 2½ to 5 years in state prison.

Statutory Maximums, however, are just that – the maximum penalty that a judge could legally impose for the convicted crime. An individual rarely receives the maximum sentence that is discussed routinely on the news.

Yet, it is the simplest understanding of the wide range of potential outcomes. Sentencing involves numerous factors. In Pennsylvania, the trial judge is free to impose any sentence that they believe is appropriate given the nature of the offense, the circumstances of the defendant, and the needs of the community.  The judge will also take into account any aggravating and mitigating factors. In most cases, judges provide a minimum sentence within a set of guidelines. Guidelines provide suggestions for conduct so that an individual convicted in Allentown may be treated similarly to someone convicted in Pittsburgh or Harrisburg. A judge reviews these guidelines in determining the appropriate sentence.

Guidelines take into account the seriousness of the offense and the individual’s past history.  If a judge feels that probation is not appropriate, then the judge must give a minimum and maximum sentence. The minimum sentence would permit an individual a chance to be released at their minimum and then be subject to supervision until the given maximum. If convicted of these more serious offenses these students could certainly face significant jail time.

Each student convicted of aggravated assault could face a potential standard guideline range of 36-54 months if found to have caused serious bodily injury, or 22-36 months if found to have attempted to cause serious bodily injury as a minimum sentence. This is drastically different than a conviction for involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter usually carries a standard sentence range between 3-12 months of minimum imprisonment. These guidelines assume that the student has no prior record. Hopefully, this offers a better understanding of the seriousness of the allegations against these students. Now, a jury will determine each student’s criminal culpability.

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