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Fina Disputes Fraternity President's Connection to Piazza's Death

by on July 10, 2017 6:24 PM

Related: Text Messages, Individual Roles the Focus as Beta Theta Pi Hearing Continues

After nearly 15 hours of direct examination of the lead detective investigating the death of Timothy Piazza, defense attorneys got their first chance to start trying to chip away at District Attorney Parks Miller's case that former members of Beta Theta Pi charged in the case should be bound over for trial.

The preliminary hearing began on June 12 at the Centre County Courthouse with nearly 11 hours of testimony by State College Police Det. David Scicchitano, including review of nearly three hours of surveillance video footage from inside the fraternity house where, during an alcohol fueled "bid acceptance night," on Feb. 2, Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State student and fraternity pledge, suffered several falls. He died on Feb. 4 of non-recoverable brain injuries and internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen. 

Fraternity members waited nearly 12 hours from the time of his first fall, head-first down the basement stairs, before calling 911.

Eighteen former members and the chapter are charged with a variety of crimes related to Piazza's death and alleged attempts at a coverup. Two have already waived preliminary hearings on charges of tampering with evidence.

District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller concluded her direct examination of Scicchitano early Monday afternoon

First up for the defendants was Frank Fina, the Philadelphia attorney representing former chapter president Brendan Young, one of eight who are charged with felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, simple assault and multiple counts of recklessly endangering another person, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor. Along with pledgemaster Daniel Casey, he is also charged with tampering with evidence and has counts of reckless endangerment, hazing and furnishing that also include alleged incidents in the spring and fall of 2016 because of their roles with organizing fraternity rush events at the time.

Fina sought to show that Young played no direct role in the circumstances that led to Piazza's death and also questioned who else might bear responsibility.

"Who is Tim Bream?" Fina asked. Bream was the live-in adviser for the fraternity, who also happens to be the head athletic trainer for the Penn State football team.

Bream's role as adviser was separate from his university employment and he has not been charged with a crime.

But Fina directed attention to Bream, over objections from Parks Miller, and pointed to a text message exchange between fraternity vice president Ed Gilmartin -- one of the members who waived his hearing on a tampering with evidence charge -- and brother Lars Kenyon in which Gilmartin suggests deleting messages "so people don’t get screenshots or anything that gets leaked to media."

"Tim's idea as a precaution," he concluded.

"Tim" is not identified by last name in the exchange, but Scicchitano testified that Kenyon said he took it to mean Tim Bream.

The night of Feb. 2, Bream was at the beginning ritual, which did not involve alcohol, and then retired to his room. Bream told police he did not know about or witness what had occurred involving alcohol, Scicchitano said. Bream also could not be seen anywhere on the surveillance video footage once the activities with alcohol began.

The night involved an initiation event for the 14 new pledges, 12 of whom were underage, called "the Gauntlet," a series of drinking stations where the pledges consumed vodka, beer and wine in quick succession for the express purpose of getting drunk quickly, several members reportedly explained to police. That was followed by a party, held mostly in the basement, with the fraternity and an all-female student organization called Trilogy.

Fina focused a substantial portion of his questioning on what he described as a lack of evidence that Young played a part in procuring alcohol for the bid acceptance, and that Young was even aware of what happened to Piazza until just before 911 was called in the morning.

Scicchitano said there was no evidence that Young was involved with purchasing alcohol for the bid acceptance or three rush events held in January. He also said there was no evidence that Young spoke to Piazza about drinking, provided him with any drinks, or stayed for the party that night. And there was no evidence that Young had been aware of Piazza falling until 10:39 a.m. on Feb. 3, minutes before paramedics were called.

A medical examiner determined that Piazza's blood alcohol at the time of his first fall down the basement stairs would have been between .28 and .36. Under questioning from Fina, Scicchitano said the medical examiner would have to answer whether that extreme BAC would have been more the result of the "gauntlet" or the drinks Piazza consumed at the subsequent party. He added that it could not be determined exactly how much he drank during either part of the evening.

The line of questions attempted to parse whether Piazza's intoxication was the result of an organized fraternity ritual that the prosecution has described as hazing, or him voluntarily consuming drinks during the social event.

Fina centered questions on whether Piazza and other pledges voluntarily chose to rush the fraternity and take part in the events. He continued by asking whether Piazza and others were threatened or physically forced to participate and to drink, which Scicchitano said they were not.

Parks Miller stressed in an objection that hazing is defined by law as an act that is required for membership or participation, and that voluntary participation is not part of the equation. Fina said the question was not about hazing but about the other charges.

"The compulsion was to gain acceptance to fraternity and the impression I got was that if they do not participate they do not get in," Scicchitano said.

Fina asked when precisely Young's alleged assault and reckless endangerment of Piazza began, and Scicchitano said it started when the "gauntlet" started, adding that Young oversaw the chapter and had perpetuated the ritual the previous two semesters.

"He was the president. He had total authority to stop this," Scicchitano said, noting later that Young could be seen on video observing pledges drinking at several of the stations.

Scicchitano also cited a text message from Young to Casey in early January, in which the fraternity president wrote, "I know you know this but if anything goes wrong with pledges this semester then both of us are f—ed... I’m thinking I’ll be heavily involved with pledging."

District Judge Allen Sinclair recessed court for the day after Fina's cross-examination concluded at 4:45 p.m.. Attorneys for the other defendants will have an opportunity to cross-examine Scicchitano on Tuesday when the hearing resumes at 8:30 a.m.

Piazza's Parents, Attorney in the Courtroom

As they were during the first day of the hearing in June, Piazza's parents Jim and Evelyn, and their attorney Tom Kline were present throughout the day in the courtroom and will return on Tuesday.

The Piazzas sat in the front of the courtroom gallery and could be seen reacting at multiple points during testimony. Jim Piazza rocked back and forth as Scicchitano spoke about Timothy's condition the morning of Feb. 3 and he dropped his head when Fina began questioning Scicchitano about the pledges' willful participation.

They left the courthouse without speaking at the end of the day, but Kline spoke to the gathered media. 

"They heard defense counsel for Mr. Young talk about everyone else that might be responsible except his client," Kline said. "That was very difficult for them to watch."

Kline said that based on Fina's questioning he believes the defense strategies will be to deflect blame to others.

"How I see it shaping up as a defense is to blame others who are not charged, blame policies and practices, allude to other individuals' conduct," he said. "There were times during cross-examination by Mr. Young’s counsel where he was pointing out all the things his client may not have done, de-emphasizing all the things he did."

Scicchitano's response about what Young did do, from alleged hazing in the fall and spring of 2016 to his term as fraternity president was "poignant," Kline said.

Fina also had questioned Scicchitano about the Penn State Interfraternity Council's use of "party-checkers" from St. Moritz Security Services. They had visited the house shortly before Piazza's fall on Feb. 2 and were there for a few minutes. Scicchitano testified that he learned their job was to make spot checks and go over a list of possible violations. They would report any found to the IFC. Scicchitano said that they were kept waiting outside until a fraternity brother brought them in and that they were escorted through the premises by members.

Scicchitano said that in his opinion the practice was not effective.

Kline said the issue was a distraction from the immediate case at hand.

"The fact that Penn State had many failures in the lack of discipline and lack of rigorous attention to fraternity life and as an element of that the so-called 'social checkers,' it doesn’t excuse the conduct that we have here today," Kline said.

He also took issue with Fina's questioning about Piazza and the other pledges being voluntary participants.

"This wasn’t free will," Kline said. "There is no free will when an individual is told they can gain admission to a particular organization if they do certain things.

"This is a case of alcohol poisoning, not drinking. There was a ritual involved that was carefully mapped out and strategically planned and executed. Tim Piazza lost his life because of it. Tim Piazza wasn’t drinking at a social. To call this a social is a grotesque understatement and misrepresentation of what happened here. There was forced alcohol poisoning of Tim Piazza the night of February 2. He was not a volunteer and he was a conscript into this fraternity."

Kline added that attending the hearing is difficult on the Piazzas but that they will continue to do so.

"I walked back to the car with Tim Piazza’s father and he said to me 'I can’t stop thinking about the fact that Tim’s not here,'" Kline said. "If anyone has any doubt about what this is really all about, it’s about two grieving parents who lost their son. They are the ones who are suffering. No one else."



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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Text Messages, Individual Roles the Focus as Beta Theta Pi Hearing Continues
July 10, 2017 3:22 PM
by Geoff Rushton
Text Messages, Individual Roles the Focus as Beta Theta Pi Hearing Continues
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