The death of the 19-year-old, Timothy Piazza, an engineering student from Lebanon, N.J., in February, after an initiation at the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi, stunned a campus where fraternities are woven deep into the school’s social life.
Mr. Piazza, prosecutors said, was participating in a drinking gantlet in which fraternity pledges drank several kinds of alcohol, and he became intoxicated. At some point, they said, Mr. Piazza tumbled down a flight of stairs.
Chilling video played in court this year showed the fraternity brothers placing his limp body on the couch, plugging their nose at the smell of his vomit, and arguing over what to do. His chest was bruised and his eyes were shut, the indictment said. The brothers hovered over him for much of the night, and he eventually awakened, then passed out again.
The fraternity members did not call for an ambulance until 10:48 a.m. on Feb. 3, court documents said — nearly 12 hours after Mr. Piazza’s ordeal began.
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After Mr. Piazza’s death, Beta Theta Pi was banned from campus and the university’s president, Eric Barron, established new restrictions for Greek organizations, including the banning of liquor and beer kegs. And then, after a two-and-a-half month investigation, a grand jury handed down a sprawling indictment against 18 students. Eight faced involuntary manslaughter charges, and 10 others faced lesser charges.
Defense lawyers, who had argued that prosecutors had vastly overreached, welcomed Friday’s ruling.
“This is a clear and unmistakable signal that the commonwealth’s case, with respect to those charges, was absolutely and unequivocally eviscerated,” Theodore Simon, a lawyer for Luke Visser, said. “Not every tragedy justifies or warrants criminal prosecution of such serious charges.”
Mr. Visser, who had faced charges including felony aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter in addition to lesser charges, was relieved by the judge’s ruling, Mr. Simon said.
Hazing-related deaths have long troubled American universities. The Penn State case is among a number of tougher prosecutions that have tried to hold fraternity members and others criminally liable for college episodes that have in the past been seen as tragic — but not criminal.
Judge Sinclair’s decision on Friday is an indication of the hurdles those prosecutions could face, and drew swift rebukes from other lawyers who work on school violence cases.
“It’s a setback in attempting to try and change the culture and allowing this type of stuff to continue,” said William S. Friedlander, an attorney who represents the family of Michael Deng, who died after a hazing ritual at Baruch College that prompted four men to plead guilty this year.
Mr. Friedlander said the ruling could give prosecutors pause in considering steep charges in similar cases. “It certainly is going to make them think twice, especially in that county,” he said.
Fourteen of the 18 men originally charged in the case are still set to be tried on the lower charges, with a trial date scheduled for early December.