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Defense Attorneys Say Beta Theta Pi Case Was Overcharged

by on September 01, 2017 5:45 PM

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 What Was Dismissed and What Was Bound Over in Beta Theta Pi Decision

After some of the most serious charges were dismissed for former fraternity brothers charged in connection with pledge Timothy Piazza's death, defense attorneys said the decision showed the counts were unfounded and the result of overreach by prosecutors.

"What had become abundantly clear, and as we’ve said from the outset of this case that as to the most serious charges – the aggravated assault, simple assault and involuntary manslaughter – those charges were absolutely, unequivocally unfounded, unwarranted and unjustified," said attorney Ted Simon, speaking outside of Centre County Courthouse on Friday. "It’s now been proven absolutely true."

Simon represents former Beta Theta Pi member Luke Visser, who is one of eight defendants who had been facing the assault and involuntary manslaughter charges. District Judge Allen Sinclair dismissed those charges Friday morning following a seven-day preliminary hearing over the course of the summer.

"This court has dismissed those charges and it has done it in a resounding way," Simon said. "It has absolutely legally and factually eviscerated the commonwealth’s claims as to those charges."

Sinclair dismissed some other misdemeanor charges as well, while holding others for court and moving them toward trial. At the end of the day, 14 men still face a variety of charges that include hazing, recklessly endangering another person, furnishing alcohol to minors and tampering with evidence.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said she plans to refile the involuntary manslaughter charges and potentially other charges that were dismissed.

Piazza's died in February after suffering fatal brain injuries and internal bleeding resulting from falls during an alcohol-fueled bid acceptance night at the fraternity house on North Burrowes Street. Simon said that while Piazza's death was a tragedy, it did not mean the defendants were criminally responsible.

"We -- myself, the Vissers -- recognize this as an awful tragedy. There’s no words we can share to extend our sympathy and heartfelt sorrow about this," Simon said. "Unfortunately, not every tragedy should result in serious criminal charges."

Michael Engle, the attorney for Gary DiBileo, said while he was "thrilled" to have some of the charges dismissed, DiBileo had mixed emotions.

"He’s relieved in some respects, but at the same time Gary’s never lost sight of the fact that a young man died here," Engle said. "That’s something as I’ve said before he carries with him and is never going to go away.

"This is not a happy day for him. I don’t think he considers himself a winner here. I don’t think there are any winners in this process. But he is a bit relieved."

Engle said that the assault and manslaughter charges were "overreaching" by the prosecution.

"I think as we’ve said all along this was an overreaching with respect to the charges, and I think that’s what the court found here," Engle said. "Hopefully the dismissal of the charges here will show that overreaching with respect to those types of offenses is not proper and the courts won’t tolerate it."

During the preliminary hearing, defense attorneys argued that their clients played a limited or no role on the night of Piazza's injuries and that their actions did not rise to the standard for criminal recklessness and malice needed for the assault and manslaughter charges.

"The evidence didn’t support the charges. It's as simple as that," said attorney Leonard Ambrose, representing Joseph Sala."It didn’t meet the legal definition of extreme recklessness, gross disregard for the safety of others. The decision was correct, no question about it... My client and these other individuals were overcharged to start with. My position all along was that these charges were excessive."

Sala also had reckless endangerment charges and several furnishing charges dismissed and still faces 14 counts of hazing and four counts of furnishing. Ambrose described the charges as minor misdemeanors, and said his client will continue to fight them.

"This has been a tragedy for the Piazzas and a tremendous stress for Joe Sala," Ambrose said. "We’re relieved. That doesn’t mean this is over. It may be round one or round two but we’ll go to whatever round we have to go."

Parks Miller said that the grand jury which recommended the charges concluded they were warranted, and that she believes another district judge will agree when she moves to refile and seek another hearing.

Rocco Cipparone, Jr., attorney for Michael Bonatucci, disagreed with Parks Miller's assessment, noting that a grand jury hears only from the prosecution and that after the defense had a chance to test the charges in court, some were dismissed.

"You have to keep in mind the grand jury consists of laypeople," Cipparone said. "This was a trained judge who has been sitting as a judge for a long time and he made the right legal and factual findings after an eight-day hearing. To say the grand jury findings supersede a trained judge’s decision is I think inappropriate. I think this judge got it right with respect to the charges he dismissed.

"All along I thought those charges were not appropriate and the judge’s decision certainly bears that out."

Andrew Shubin, attorney for Nicholas Kubera, said Sinclair's decision was "sound and well-reasoned."

"Never before have I ever been involved in a case where there was a record as large and complete as this one," Shubin said. "Based on the record the judge did the right thing, which was dismiss the most serious charges in this case. He didn’t do it because he wanted to help anybody. He did it because the commonwealth failed to reach it’s burden of proof and they failed by a long shot in my opinion."

Tom Kline, the attorney for Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn, said the defendants shouldn't celebrate the charges that were dismissed, because they still face a number of charges that could result in jail time.

"If there is a headline to be written about today, in my personal belief it’s that 14 individuals are bound over on serious charges and will face trial," Kline said.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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Piazza Attorney: 'This Is No Day for Celebration for Anyone'
September 01, 2017 4:48 PM
by Geoff Rushton
Piazza Attorney: 'This Is No Day for Celebration for Anyone'
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