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Fraternity Members Headed Back to Court as Hearing Continues in Piazza Case

by on August 10, 2017 4:30 AM

Former members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State facing charges related to the death of Timothy Piazza will be back in Centre County Court on Thursday morning as a preliminary hearing continues.

The hearing is scheduled to resume starting at 8:30 a.m. and again on Friday morning. Once the hearing finally concludes, District Judge Allen Sinclair will determine which charges against fraternity brothers and the Alpha Upsilon chapter will be bound over for trial.

It's been two months since the preliminary hearing commenced. On June 12, State College Police Det. David Scicchitano testified for about 11 hours under direct examination by District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. That included lengthy excerpts of surveillance video from inside the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house the night of Feb. 2 and morning of Feb. 3.

Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore from Lebanon, N.J., was taking part in an alcohol-fueled "bid acceptance" event with 13 other pledges the night of Feb. 2 when at around 11 p.m. he fell head first down the basement stairs. He suffered other falls on the first floor throughout the night and early the next morning investigators believe he again fell down the stairs.

A number of fraternity members were allegedly aware Piazza was in poor condition throughout the night but did not call paramedics until 10:48 a.m., when he was found unresponsive. The prosecution says that Piazza and others were forced to consume excessive amounts of alcohol and that hazing played a direct role in Piazza's death.

He died the morning of Feb. 4 after being transported to Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Doctors said Piazza had suffered non-recoverable brain injuries as well as a lacerated spleen that caused significant internal bleeding.

Investigators also say that some members attempted to hide evidence of underage drinking and hazing activities after Piazza was taken away by paramedics.

Before the hearings began two members charged with misdemeanor counts of tampering with evidence -- Ed Gilmartin and Ryan Foster -- were granted preliminary waivers.

Over the course of two days in July, attorneys for seven of the defendants had an opportunity to cross-examine Scicchitano. 

After a brief cross-examination by the attorney for the fraternity chapter, lawyers for six of the fraternity brothers who are facing the most serious charges, including aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter, sought to illustrate that their clients had limited interaction with Piazza on the night in question or played no role in the planning of the bid acceptance event and the so-called "gauntlet," a series of drinking stations where pledges consumed vodka, beer and wine in rapid succession.

They've also questioned how Piazza and other pledges were forced to take part in the activities and exactly how much alcohol Piazza consumed and when, making the point that he continued to consume alcohol willingly during a social event that followed the initial pledge ritual and before he first fell.

The Charges

Brendan Young, Daniel Casey, Jonah Neuman, Nick Kubera, Michael Bonatucci, Gary Dibileo, Luke Visser and Joe Sala face charges of 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. Young and Casey also face charges of tampering with evidence.

The Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi is charged with involuntary manslaughter, 50 counts of hazing, 48 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors and 48 counts of unlawful acts relative to liquor.

Michael Angelo Schiavone, Craig Heimer, Lars Kenyon and Parker Jax Yochim are charged with multiple counts of recklessly endangering another person, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor.

Gilmartin, Foster, Ryan McCann, Lucas Rockwell and Braxton Becker are charged with tampering with evidence. Joseph Ems is charged with recklessly endangering another person.

Slow Pace

In addition to the number of defendants and attorneys, the hearing has been slowed at times by arguments between Parks Miller and the defense attorneys. They've butted heads multiple times over defense attorneys' requests to show more surveillance footage than had been exhibited during direct examination.

They've also traded barbs. At one point during the July hearings, several attorneys interjected and the DA referred to the attorneys who were not questioning Scicchitano at the time as "the peanut gallery," leading attorney Ted Simon, representing Visser, to call for sanctions against her. 

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

It's also possible, though probably unlikely, that there could still be more witnesses called before the hearing is finished. Scicchitano has been the only witness through three full days of the hearing. Parks Miller said after the hearing recessed in July that she couldn't yet say if she would call any other witnesses. If she does, all 17 attorneys would again have the opportunity to cross-examine each of those.

Earlier Coverage

Presentment Details Circumstances Leading to Piazza's Death

Surveillance Video Shown, Preliminary Hearing for Beta Theta Pi Brothers Continued

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

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

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



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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