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State attorney general Josh Shapiro to review Penn State fraternity death

| Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, 6:57 p.m.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at an opioids symposium Friday, Oct. 27, at Duquesne University.
Photo by Wes Venteicher
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at an opioids symposium Friday, Oct. 27, at Duquesne University.

PHILADELPHIA — The Pennsylvania attorney general's office has agreed to take over the manslaughter case against former Pennsylvania State University fraternity members accused in last February's hazing death of a pledge.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office announced Monday that it would take the case from the new Centre County district attorney, Bernard Cantorna, who said he had a conflict of interest that prevented him from prosecuting it.

In a statement, Shapiro promised “an independent review” of the death of sophomore Tim Piazza, which leaves open the possibility that the charges could be dropped, increased or changed.

Fourteen members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity remain charged in the death of the New Jersey engineering major after a booze-fueled party at which prosecutors have alleged hazing occurred. Eight of the members are charged with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault; other charges include hazing, reckless endangerment and furnishing alcohol to minors.

Cantorna, who was sworn in as district attorney this month, had refrained from commenting on the case after he was elected. After consulting the State Bar Ethics Committee, he last month requested that the attorney general take over the matter because he had “previously served as counsel” to some of the participants.

His predecessor, Stacy Parks Miller, who lost a bid for re-election, initially charged 18 members of the fraternity in Piazza's death. Piazza became intoxicated, fell down the fraternity stairs, and later succumbed to a brain injury, ruptured spleen and collapsed lung. Fraternity members didn't call for help until nearly 12 hours later.

Following a lengthy preliminary hearing that spanned multiple days and weeks, a Centre County judge gutted the case and dismissed the most serious charges.

Parks Miller last fall refiled them against eight of the members and continued to press the case until she left office.

Defense attorneys in the case have argued that Parks Miller overcharged and that there was insufficient evidence to prove that their clients forced Piazza to drink or that their actions led to his death.

Frank Fina, an attorney who represents Beta Theta Pi chapter president Brendan Young, said he welcomed the review by the attorney general.

“I think that's entirely appropriate,” said Fina, a former prosecutor in the attorney general's office, though not under Shapiro.

Tom Kline, an attorney for Piazza's parents, said they have “full confidence in the attorney general's office and look forward to the continued prosecution of those who are responsible for the death of their son.”

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