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Closing Arguments Under Way in Beta Theta Pi Hearing

by on August 30, 2017 5:21 PM

Related: Bream Says He Did Not Approve or See Events Leading Up to Piazza's Death

A preliminary hearing for former members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State facing charges related to the death of Timothy Piazza is finally nearing a conclusion.

Eighteen former members and the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi are charged with a variety of crimes related to the 19-year-old sophomore's death in February, as well as broader allegations related to hazing. Piazza died on Feb. 4 as a result of brain injuries and a ruptured spleen caused by falls he suffered during an alcohol-fueled, pledge event at the fraternity the night of Feb. 2 and early morning of Feb. 3.

The hearing which began in June and continued in July and earlier in August entered its sixth day on Wednesday and by the time court recessed for the day, six defense attorneys had made their closing arguments. The hearing is set to resume on Thursday morning -- Friday also has been set aside if necessary -- and once it concludes, District Judge Allen Sinclair will determine which charges will be bound over for trial.

It's unlikely -- given the number of charges and defendants and the length of the hearing -- that Sinclair will make a decision from the bench immediately after the hearing concludes.

Common threads ran through most of the closing arguments made by defense attorneys on Wednesday, focusing on the limited individual roles of their clients on the night of Piazza's fatal injuries, arguing their actions didn't rise to the level of criminal recklessness required for some of the most serious charges, contending Piazza and other pledges were voluntary participants, and raising a number of unanswered questions they say make it impossible for many of the charges to be bound over.

But for Michael Leahey, the attorney for the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi, there was a different argument to be made. Prosecutors, he said, had the wrong entity in charging his client.

The Alpha Upsilon chapter, he said, is the housing corporation for the fraternity, but that the charges leveled in a grand jury presentment weren't directed at the housing corporation. Alpha Upsilon is charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter, 50 counts of hazing, 48 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors and 48 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor.

Those charges, Leahey argued, were meant for the local active chapter of the house, which is a separate, unincorporated nonprofit organization, not the housing corporation.

District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller argued that Alpha Upsilon was properly charged as the entity with the address of 220 N. Burrowes St., the fraternity house.

Attorney Frank Fina, representing fraternity president Brendan Young, laid the groundwork for many of the common themes that would come up for each of the remaining defense attorneys on Wednesday. Young is charged with aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, simple assault, tampering with evidence, 50 counts of recklessly endangering another person, 50 counts of hazing, 48 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors and 48 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor.

Fina said it's unknown what Piazza's blood alcohol level was after "the gauntlet," a series of drinking stations where pledges rapidly consumed alcohol, and how much Piazza consumed at a social event that followed, which defense attorneys have characterized as a voluntary event that followed the pledge initiation ritual.

He added that it's unknown who exactly provided Piazza all of the alcohol he consumed or how specific injuries occurred.

"It’s fundamentally impossible to determine there was criminal liability for this tragic death without answers to those core questions," Fina said.

There was no evidence that Young planned any of the fraternity rush events in January and February that involved alcohol, he said, and no evidence Young knew of Piazza's injuries before the following morning just after 10:30 a.m. and about nine minutes before a fraternity brother called 911.

Young witnessed Piazza consume beer for about 12 seconds, Fina said, and that cannot be regarded as criminal recklessness necessary for the assault charges and direct causation for involuntary manslaughter. 

He also said that for some of the charges, which relate to allegations of hazing and furnishing in previous semesters, there has been no evidence of who he specifically hazed or furnished.

In her rebuttals throughout the day, Parks Miller often cited Pennsylvania precedent of Judith McCloskey, a mother convicted of involuntary manslaughter after allowing teenagers to drink in her home. Three of the teens left in a car and died in a car crash.

That case demonstrated recklessness and causation by allowing a chain of events to begin that lead to the deaths, Parks Miller said. At Beta Theta Pi, it began with "the gauntlet," she argued.

As president, Young was in control of the entire house, she said, and the defendants knew the high risk of danger associated with the event, which she said demonstrated recklessness.

The fraternity members entered the night with the intention of committing crimes -- furnishing and hazing -- and the hazing had the explicit purpose of having pledges consume potentially fatal amounts of alcohol, she argued. The "gauntlet" was a tradition and they were well aware of its risks, having developed "callous, brutish measures" to prevent death, such as placing a full backpack on an unconscious Piazza to keep him from rolling over and aspirating, Parks Miller said.

Young and pledgemaster Daniel Casey, who faces the same charges, both were found to have sent text messages to others afterwards that seemed to recognize their culpability in Piazza's death.

Several attorneys argued that Piazza and other pledges voluntarily took part in the initiation ceremony and the social, and that fraternity members who did not take part in the gauntlet in the past were still accepted. Parks Miller argued that in the hazing statute, there is no consent.

"Those individuals who went into that house didn’t consent to what happened," she said. "Tim Piazza didn’t consent to die."

Casey's attorney, Steve Trialonas, said that there was no evidence his client was aware of a high risk that the event would lead to Piazza's death, noting that in the spring and fall of 2016 no one who participated in the gauntlet suffered serious bodily injury.

"It has to be actual risk," Trialonas said. "Just because there’s a possibility something might happen does not bring it in the realm of reckless disregard."

Daniel McGee, attorney for Jonah Neuman, said the extent of his client's involvement was handing beers to three pledges during the gauntlet, none of whom were Piazza. He didn't have a position of authority in the fraternity, wasn't involved with planning and had little interaction with Piazza.

Neuman was seen on surveillance video pushing another brother who has not been charged, Kordel Davis, after Davis said Piazza needed medical attention following his fall down the basement stairs.

Neuman is charged with aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, simple assault, 14 counts of reckless endangerment, 14 counts of hazing, 12 counts of furnishing, 12 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor and disorderly conduct.

McGee said Neuman's act of handing out three beers doesn't rise to the level of recklessness.

Like others, Neuman bears responsibility for the whole night because he played a role to further it, Parks Miller said. He also knew hazing and furnishing were illegal.

"He doesn’t have to do all of it to be responsible," she said. "The entire night was one big illegal venture from beginning to end."

Representing Nicholas Kubera, attorney Andrew Shubin said his client also played a limited role that did not show recklessness. During the gauntlet, Kubera handed out six beers, including one to Piazza, from whom he took it back before he finished it, Shubin said.

Kubera is charged with aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, simple assault  14 counts of reckless endangerment, 14 counts of hazing, 12 counts of furnishing and 12 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor

Piazza did not appear on the video to be intoxicated after the gauntlet, Shubin said, but did after he came upstairs from the subsequent social in the basement.

"He drank way too much," Shubin said. "Unfortunately that was his choice."

Kubera didn't know Piazza had fallen or needed medical attention, he said, and used Parks Miller's own words from earlier in the day when discussing Tim Bream, the live-in adviser who testified he was in his room for the night and unaware of what was going on.

"How can someone be criminally liable if he didn’t know what was going on?" Shubin said, quoting the DA.

Like the other attorneys, Shubin said there was no evidence of recklessness and that the matter was a furnishing and liquor law case like those the court often sees.

Parks Miller disagreed.

"We don’t see this level of blatant recklessness… We do see furnishing cases and they look absolutely nothing like what we’ve seen in this case," she said.

In handing out beers, Kubera agreed to be a part of what was collectively dangerous behavior, she added.

Attorney Rocco Cipparone, Jr., representing Michael Bonatucci, was made the final arguments of the day, making many of the same points as his predecessors -- that Bonatucci had no role in planning the event, had limited involvement, and had no knowledge of Piazza's fall or injuries. Bonatucci, who faces the same charges as Kubera left the house some time after the basement party began and did not return the rest of the night or following morning.

Bonatucci did not provide any alcohol to Piazza and there is no evidence Piazza showed signs of intoxication before Bonatucci left the house Cipparone said. 

Cipparone argued Having been initiated the previous semester, Bonatucci only had one previous experience with such an event and no one suffered serious injury (though Davis did suffer a superficial head injury after falling at that event).

"To say in Michael Bonatucci's circumstances he knew whatever would happen would result in life-threatening injury is stretching credulity beyond its bounds," Cipparone.

Parks Miller argued that the standard for recklessness is a high risk for danger not necessarily being certain of the outcome.

Cipparone also disputed Parks Miller's use of the McCloskey precedent, saying Bonatucci didn't live in the house and wasn't in a position of authority to be giving permission for the event to occur.

Two former fraternity members have already waived their preliminary hearings on charges of tampering with evidence. Beginning Thursday morning, 11 defense attorneys still remain to give their closing arguments.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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