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Defense Attorneys Cross Examine Detective, Hearing Continued for Beta Theta Pi Members Charged in Piazza Death

by on July 11, 2017 8:05 PM

A preliminary hearing continued on Tuesday for the former members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity charged in connection with the death of Penn State student and fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza. But it will still be another month before there's a decision on what charges will be bound over for trial.

Defense attorneys for five of the accused had the opportunity to cross-examine State College Police Det. David Scicchitano as they sought to poke holes in the charges against their clients related to Piazza's death and accusations of hazing. They often followed similar beats, raising issues about exactly how much alcohol Piazza consumed and when, their clients' limited interactions with him on the night he suffered what would be a fatal fall at the fraternity house and whether or not he was forced to partake in excessive drinking at the "bid acceptance" night on Feb. 2.

Piazza, 19, died on Feb. 4 after suffering non-recoverable brain injuries and a lacerated spleen that caused internal bleeding. A medical examiner said the injuries were the result of his fall down the basement stairs at the fraternity and subsequent falls during the night, caused by a high level of intoxication.

In all, 18 former members and the Alpha Upsilon chapter of the fraternity are charged with a variety of crimes related to Piazza's death. Two who are charged with tampering with evidence have already waived their preliminary hearings.

On Monday, Michael Leahey, attorney for the fraternity chapter, briefly questioned Scicchitano on his knowledge of how nonprofit corporations work. The chapter is charged with involuntary manslaughter, hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors. Frank Fina, the attorney for former chapter president Brendan Young, questioned Scicchitano for nearly three hours on Monday.

After Tuesday's questioning, that leaves 10 more defense attorneys still to conduct their cross-examinations. That is tentatively scheduled to happen Aug. 10 and 11 when the hearing continues, District Judge Allen Sinclair said upon recessing court around 5 p.m. on Tuesday. The preliminary hearing began on June 12, with Scicchitano, the lead detective in the investigation and sole witness to date, testifying for about 11 hours.

The attorneys who questioned Scicchitano on Tuesday are representing clients who, like Young, are facing the most serious charges of aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter. They also are charged with simple assault multiple counts of hazing, recklessly endangering another person and furnishing alcohol to minors.

Steve Trialonas, the attorney for spring 2017 pledgemaster Daniel Casey, opened cross-examination on Tuesday morning questioning how law enforcement determined his client could be legally liable for the felony charge of aggravated assault. In response to Trialonas' questions, Scicchitano said that no one had been seriously injured or died during similar events in previous semesters at the fraternity, and that Casey did not push or trip Piazza to cause him to fall down the stairs.

Scicchitano testified that Piazza and the 13 other pledges on the night of Feb. 2 did voluntarily attend and that Casey did not physically force Piazza to drink. Trialonas cited a text message from brother Kordel Davis, who is not charged, which told the pledges in advance to "get ready to get f—ed up" and Scicchitano said that Piazza did not express a desire to refrain from drinking

On redirect, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller came back to an argument she has been making, that as the hazing law is defined, the pledges felt forced to take part if they wanted to be part of the fraternity.

They viewed it as "a rite of passage, a way to get in" Scicchitano testified. "They felt they were not going to be accepted if they did not participate. 

Scicchitano also noted that some members who were interviewed by police were cooperative but "cried because they felt they were betraying their brothers."

Trialonas moved on to the hazing and furnishing charges. Casey and Young are both charged with 50 counts of reckless endangerment and hazing and 48 counts of furnishing for their alleged roles in bid acceptance events for Piazza's pledge class as well as for the pledge classes in the spring and fall of 2016.

At each, pledges went through what was known as "the gauntlet," a series of drinking stations where they quickly consumed vodka, beer and wine.

Scicchitano could not say with certainty who had actually gone through "the gauntlet" in previous semesters.

The "gauntlet" was followed by a party with members of the fraternity and an all-female organization called Trilogy. While Trialonas made the point that it was the voluntary decision of Piazza and other pledges to rush the fraternity and take part in the drinking events, as other defense attorneys did, he sought to separate the "the gauntlet" as the alleged hazing element of the charges and the party an entirely voluntary social event where there was no question that the pledges chose freely to drink.

He pressed Scicchitano to quantify how much alcohol Piazza consumed during the "gauntlet," which he was not able to do. Trialonas noted that 82 minutes elapsed between the end of the "gauntlet" and the time Piazza first fell head-first down the basement stairs and in the interim continued to drink at the social event.

Trialonas contended that in some of the video surveillance footage, it was clear a bottle of vodka the 14 pledges were told to finish at the start of the "gauntlet" still had some remaining in it and that on some occasions during the event Casey could be seen pulling a bottle away from pledges while they were drinking.

Parks Miller took issue with the parsing of when exactly Piazza became inebriated to the point that his motor functions were so impaired. "The social immediately followed the gauntlet. It was all one one big event," she said, and the fraternity brothers were reckless in how much alcohol they gave Piazza. 

That dispute led to a heated exchange between several of the defense attorneys and Parks Miller over showing clips of the surveillance footage that had been shown on June 12. The DA referred to the attorneys who were not questioning Scicchitano at the time as "the peanut gallery," leading attorney Ted Simon, representing member Luke Visser, to call for sanctions against her. 

Sinclair did not sanction her but ordered the video to be made available and chastised both sides for their "bickering back and forth."

In response to continued questioning from Trialonas, Scicchitano testified there was no evidence Casey witnessed Piazza's fall at 11:22 p.m., and he did not enter the great hall, where members carried Piazza, until 40 minutes later. He was in the room with Piazza for a few minutes before leaving and had no further interaction with Piazza until the next morning, 12 minutes before the brothers decided to call 911.

Daniel McGee, the attorney for brother Jonah Neuman, questioned Scicchitano about the limited role his client played in any of the planning for the event.

Scicchitano testified that Neuman wasn't a fraternity officer or a member of the social committee, didn't participate in acquiring the alcohol and didn't set up the "gauntlet."

Neuman was at the station for shotgunning beer and handed beers to three pledges. In response to questions from McGee, Scicchitano said there was no evidence Neuman gave Piazza any alcohol, that Neuman was at the social event or that he was even personally acquainted with Piazza.

On redirect, Scicchitano said that in his initial interview with police, Neuman said he did not give beers to any pledges, but could be seen doing so on the video footage.

Attorney Andrew Shubin, representing brother Nick Kubera, also noted his client wasn't an officer or a member of the social committee and did not have a role in planning the "gauntlet." Kubera, who was a pledge in 2016, would be a "victim" of the hazing that was alleged to have occurred in prior semesters, Shubin said.

Kubera interacted with Piazza twice, once in handing him a beer and again shortly before his fall down the stairs. Kubera could be seen assisting Piazza in walking around the first floor of the house before returning him to a couch in the great hall.

Shubin noted that Kubera appeared to take the beer back from Piazza before he could finish it, as he did with two others. Scicchitano agreed with Shubin that there was no evidence Kubera witnessed or knew about Piazza's fall.

Scicchitano said several times throughout the day that brother Jerry Rizzo, who was not charged, sent a a GroupMe message to the fraternity brothers that night, alerting them to Piazza's fall and that he was going to "need help." Scicchitano said at some point that GroupMe was deleted and evidence of who received it could not be recovered.

Shubin also asked Scicchitano if he was aware Rizzo told Piazza during the social to "slow down." Scicchitano said he was not aware.

The detective said he also was not aware of a statement that another brother, Gerald Coyne, also not charged, had been cleaning up vomit near the top of the stairs when Piazza fell.

Attorney Rocco Cipparone, representing brother Michael Bonatucci, noted that his client, like others, was not an officer or social committee member and did not take part in the planning or purchasing of alcohol. Under questioning by Cipparone, Scicchitano said there was no evidence Bonatucci knew about Piazza's fall, his injuries or his condition throughout the night.

Most of the defense attorneys have not seen the complete surveillance video footage with the exception of Leahey, the attorney for the chapter. Cipparone said that Leahey informed him the video shows Bonatucci leaving the fraternity house at 11:10 p.m., 12 minutes before Piazza's fall. Bonatucci wasn't there the rest of the night or the next morning when Piazza was brought up from the basement the second time and paramedics were eventually called.

On redirect, Scicchitano testified that Bonatucci brought a case of beer into the lobby of the house and during the "gauntlet" served beers to four pledges who were underage and one who was of legal drinking age.

Gary Dibileo also was not an officer or a member of the social committee and had no role in procuring alcohol, his attorney, Michael Engle, pointed out.

Engle questioned Scicchitano about statements given in an interview by Davis that pledges were concerned about a ranking kept by brothers and that their failure to participate would hurt their ranking. Engle pointed to statements included in the grand jury presentment that the ranking was about whether a member would be allowed to live in the fraternity house, not if they would be accepted as a member.

Dibileo manned one of the "gauntlet" stations where pledges drank from a bag of wine. Scicchitano's initial review of surveillance footage indicated the station was out of view, but in the past month he identified an angle where he could see Dibileo at the station. Scicchitano said he could only see Dibileo hold the bag of wine for two pledges, neither of whom was Piazza, before the view was obscured by other people.

Scicchitano testified that Dibileo had no immediate knowledge of Piazza's fall and that he was informed of it by his roommate, Rizzo. Dibileo later saw Piazza on the couch, but did not interact with him then or for the remainder of the night or the next morning.

He and Rizzo both said, and Neuman confirmed, that they were both concerned about Piazza's level of intoxication and advocated for calling an ambulance. Ultimately, however, they left it to more senior members of the fraternity to decide what to do.

Scicchitano testified on Monday and again on Tuesday about a text message exchange between Rizzo and Dibileo on Feb. 3, after Piazza had been taken to the hospital.

"Cause it's not the fact that he drank," Rizzo wrote. "Like he drank because we hazed him, too... Main word being hazed."

"We tried our best to get him to the hospital," Dibileo replied. "I wish people would've listened... But yeah, you're right."

Only those four messages were made available and Sinclair denied a request by Engle to have the entire record of the exchanges produced. Parks Miller has argued that is a matter for discovery before trial.

Engle also discussed the coroner's report that calls the manner of Piazza's death accidental, not a homicide or undetermined. He also pointed out that Centre County medical examiner Dr. Harry Kamerow's report, which included a review of the coroner's report, emergency room records, a police report in March and some video surveillance clips, does not dispute the manner of death.

Scicchitano testified on redirect that police and the prosecution have not alleged that Piazza's death was intentional.

He said it was just days after Piazza's death in February when he spoke to the Dauphin County coroner. (Piazza was transported to and died at Hershey Medical Center). At that point the only interview he had conducted was with Piazza's brother and the coroner had very little background on the case.

Future of the Case

The slow-moving nature of the case means that any trial almost certainly won't happen this year.

After the preliminary hearing concludes, presumably in August, Parks Miller expects defense attorneys will file motions that the judge erred on any charges bound over. Assuming the cases move forward, they will then enter what will likely be a lengthy pre-trial discovery phase.

Parks Miller, however, lost her bid for re-election in the primary and after November's election, Bernie Cantorna will take office as the new DA in January.

So what does that mean for how the case will be pursued going forward?

"Hopefully the vision we put into this case will be carried forward with the same vigor with which we started it," Parks Miller said at the conclusion of Tuesday's hearing. "We have wonderful staff here who through the grace of God and my successor's intelligence if he has any will keep them on and keep them on this case. These guys are fierce trial attorneys, they share the passion I do and they have the absolute wisdom to see this through. If it's not going to be me, it must be them."

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