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Defense Questions Focus on Individual Roles, Alcohol and Piazza's Condition

by on August 10, 2017 11:52 AM

Defense cross examination of a State College Police detective continued Thursday morning in the preliminary hearing for former members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity charged in connection with the death of Timothy Piazza.

As the hearing entered its fourth day, attorney Ted Simon, representing defendant Luke Visser, spent the morning questioning Det. David Scicchitano, the lead investigator in the case, about many of the same points lawyers for some of Visser’s co-defendants made earlier this summer

Simon's questions centered on his client's limited interaction with Piazza and knowledge about his condition; who actually provided the alcohol consumed by Piazza and how impaired the 19-year-old sophomore was; and possible other factors that may have contributed to a fall down the basement stairs at the fraternity house that ultimately led to Piazza's death.

Eighteen members of the fraternity and the Alpha Upsilon chapter are facing charges related to Piazza’s death. The 19-year-old sophomore from Lebanon, N.J. was one of 13 pledges who took part in an alcohol-fueled “bid acceptance” event the night of Feb. 2. After falling head first down the stairs at about 11:22 p.m., Piazza fell several more times throughout the night on the first floor and investigators believe he fell down the stairs on the morning of Feb. 3. He died on Feb. 4, having suffered non-recoverable brain injuries and a life threatening spleen laceration.

Two members charged with tampering with evidence already waived their preliminary hearings.

Visser is one of seven fraternity brothers facing the most serious charges that include aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter, as well as simple assault and multiple counts of recklessly endangering another person, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor. 

Scicchitano affirmed under questioning by Simon that Visser, a "newly initiated brother" as of December 2016, wasn't an officer or committee member at the fraternity and played no role in the planning or purchase of alcohol for the bid acceptance and the "gauntlet," a series of drinking stations where pledges consumed wine, beer and vodka in rapid succession.

Visser did run the beer pong station, but there is no conclusive evidence that Piazza actually consumed a beer at that station, Scicchitano said.

Simon also sought to show that Piazza was a voluntary participant in the event. In response to questioning, Scicchitano said there were three previous "rush" events at the fraternity for potential members, all of which involved alcohol.

"If they were bothered or offended by any of the activities they didn’t have to go back, correct?" Simon asked, which Scicchitano agreed.

As Simon questioned Scicchitano on the nature of fraternities, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller offered one of many objections on the morning, most of which were sustained by District Judge Allen Sinclair. 

"This whole thing is trying to blame Mr. Piazza for his death," Parks Miller said. Simon denied that was the case.

Scicchitano testified that Visser was seen leaving the house at about 11:44 p.m. and did not return again, and that there was no evidence he was aware of Piazza's condition for the rest of the night and next morning.

After the initiation event, the fraternity hosted a social that included members of Trilogy, an all-female student group that functions like a sorority and is thought to be a reconstituted version of the former Delta Delta Delta chapter at Penn State.

Simon asked if it's possible some of the Trilogy members could have brought alcohol, which Scicchitano couldn't say.

Whether Piazza's fall was caused solely by his level of intoxication was another issue raised by Simon. In July, Andrew Shubin -- attorney for Nick Kubera, who faces the same charges as Visser -- said another brother, Gerald Coyne, who was not charged, had been cleaning up vomit near the top of the stairs when Piazza fell, suggesting Piazza had slipped.

Simon asked Scicchitano about "intervening factors" including a slippery floor and that two Trilogy members were seated at the top of the stairs, leaving the possibility that he tripped. Scicchitano said Coyne would not interview with police and the Trilogy members could not be seen on video surveillance footage.

Asked if Piazza appeared to be showing no signs of problems with motor functions prior to the fall, however, Scicchitano disagreed, saying "He looked hammered drunk."

Video footage played a key role late in the morning's questioning as Simon questioned how intoxicated Piazza was and whether he actually fell down the stairs a second time.. As had been suggested by another attorney in July, Simon suggested that video footage not shown among the excerpts exhibited in court earlier this summer showed Piazza, shortly after 7 a.m., get up from a couch and close a patio door, displaying signs of cognition and motor function.

After some back and forth, during redirect Parks Miller showed some of the video in question. Piazza gets up from the couch and walks toward the patio door. He stumbles and falls head first toward the door. After getting up, he turns around and stumbles forward.

A few minutes later Piazza got up and closed the door without falling. Simon said that another excerpt not played in court would have shown Piazza get up again and walk to the middle room without stumbling.

Simon said this was critical because it was the last time Piazza was seen walking before he left the view of cameras. The next time he was seen on camera was when pledges and brothers were carrying his unconscious body up from the basement.

Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn, were in the courtroom once again on Thursday with their attorney Tom Kline. As they have done on the previous three days of the hearing this summer, they left the courtroom before the surveillance video was played.

It was another contentious morning in the hearing as well, with Parks Miller and defense attorneys sparring throughout. At one point when Simon continued with a question before Sinclair ruled on an objection, Parks Miller told him to "show some respect." That elicited some audible reactions from families of the defendants in the courtroom, leading Parks Miller to turn and chastise them as well.

Defense cross-examination of Scicchitano will continue at about 1 p.m. on Thursday. The hearing is expected to continue at least through Friday. Nine more defense attorneys still have an opportunity for cross-examination.

FOOTAGE DELETED

During Parks Miller's redirect, Scicchitano revealed that the investigation has allegedly found surveillance footage from the basement of the fraternity house was deleted.

Surveillance video from throughout the house has been key in the prosecution's case for what happened that night. Investigators were told, however, that the cameras in the basement were not working.

Those cameras could have captured Piazza's fall on the night of Feb. 2 and determined what happened the morning of Feb. 3 when he was found unresponsive. It also would have provided more evidence for charges related to underage drinking.

Scicchitano did not say what information led to the discovery, but testified that there appears to have been footage in the basement from that night and that it was deleted. He said footage on the basement cameras resumed on Feb. 6 and that everything before that had been erased.

He added that police have a suspect who is among the 16 defendants in court on Thursday. Charges have not been filed as of yet and Scicchitano did not name the suspect -- though on questioning from Simon he said the suspect is not Visser.

Several former members are already facing tampering with evidence charges for alleged efforts to delete group messages and texts and to get rid of evidence of alcohol.



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at geoff.rushton@statecollege.com or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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