Ryan Burke, the first fraternity brother to plead guilty for his role in the Beta Theta Pi hazing death case, avoided jail time at his sentencing Tuesday — 542 days after Timothy Piazza died.
“This is a case where nobody leaves the courtroom in a good mood or feeling like it was a good day,” said Philip Masorti, Burke’s attorney.
Burke was Beta Theta Pi’s “rush chair” and supplied four pledges — including Timothy Piazza — with alcohol during the fraternity’s bid acceptance night on Feb. 2, 2017. He was also one of four former brothers who carried Piazza up the stairs after he fell and became unconscious. Piazza died two days later.
“It wasn’t a good day for anybody. Certainly wasn’t a good day for the Piazza family. Wasn’t a good day for the Burke family. Wasn’t a good day for the defense or for the Commonwealth,” Masorti said. “This is something that had to be done, but unlike a lot of cases, its resolution seems to be maybe a little bit hollow.”
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The hollow feeling, Masorti said, was due in part to the reality that Jim and Evelyn Piazza are without their son.
“The magnitude of the tragedy is so large that when we felt this, what could we say today that would at all offset or provide some element of solace to the Piazza family? And the answer is really nothing,” Masorti said.
Mom sentenced ‘to life without half of her heart’
While he believed finding words of solace for the Piazza family may be difficult, both Piazzas attempted to express what it has been like to live without their son. They read victim impact statements to Judge Brian Marshall before sentencing.
“I spend holidays, Father’s Day and his birthday at the cemetery. When I go to church — which has become less frequent — I see the vision of Tim’s body in a casket at his wake and funeral,” Jim Piazza said as he fought back tears.
“Before I close my eyes every night I have the vision of Tim lying in the hospital bed all battered and bruised on life-support. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think of is Tim laying in the basement slowly dying.”
Evelyn Piazza said she has been sentenced to life without half of her heart and half of her life’s purpose because the former brothers mistreated her son.
Those statements were delivered after Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo played a voicemail Timothy Piazza left for his girlfriend before arriving at the bid acceptance night.
It is a voicemail that Jim and Evelyn have not listened to in a courtroom setting. The two continued their tradition of leaving the courtroom before video or audio from that night is played.
Their departure typically leaves attorney Tom Kline in the room to watch and listen to the night’s event. He was not present at Burke’s sentencing, but said it was an important step on the long road to justice for the family.
“With the recognition by the sentencing judge of the aggravating circumstances involved in the death of Tim Piazza, along with the sentence including loss of freedom of an admitted perpetrator of the crime, today’s sentencing is an important step on the long road to justice for the Piazza family.”
House arrest is ‘fair’
The Burke family, meanwhile, was relieved that Ryan was not incarcerated.
“They accept readily a period of home confinement. And as I said to the judge, what purpose does putting Ryan Burke in jail serve?” Masorti asked.
“The judge, in his own way, concluded something very similar. The needs of society were best met by Ryan Burke spending 90 days confined to his home based on his role and his acceptance and responsibility. And I think that’s fair.”
While Jim Piazza and Zarallo both questioned Burke’s remorse, Marshall agreed with Masorti that Burke pleaded at the first practical opportunity. Burke officially entered his open guilty plea on June 13.
Masorti would not say who approached who about entering the plea, but cited District Judge Steven Lachman’s dismissal of five charges as the first time that it was considered.
Masorti said there was consensus that Burke’s sentence was “the option we felt was best for Ryan.”
“I have a tremendous amount of faith in our judiciary and our justice system, is when you do the right thing, the courts will recognize that and sentence appropriately. We did the right thing. It turned out OK for us.”
Masorti also spoke about the difference between moral negligence, criminal charges and civil charges.
“You can stack the elements of civil or moral neglect or negligence, but it doesn’t add up to necessarily criminal conduct,” Masorti said. “Ryan Burke may have been negligent in handing him a beer, but you have a 20-year-old handing a beer to a 19-year-old. Two young men — college kids in the prime of their life going to do great things — and a tragedy. The tragedy is Timothy Piazza is no longer with us.”
Timothy Piazza’s name, however, lives on with the anti-hazing legislation named in his honor.
“This can affect positive change. What’s left for us to do? Who wants to have their child be the poster board for change and memoriam? Nobody wants that,” Masorti said. “So we take a horrible situation and we look at it and think, ‘Well, what’s the best we can make out of that?’ And Timothy Piazza’s death can be the catalyst for positive change moving forward. It may be unrealistic, but we can certainly hope that this never happens anywhere ever again.”
The Office of the Attorney General was contacted for this story, but declined comment due to Judge Jonathan Grine’s gag order that applies to the remaining defendants.