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Hearing to Continue for Fraternity Brothers in Piazza Case

by on August 11, 2017 2:57 PM

After five days spread across three months, the preliminary hearing for former fraternity members charged in connection with Timothy Piazza's death has been continued yet again.

Defense cross-examination of State College Police Det. David Scicchitano, the sole witness at the hearing, concluded on Friday morning. The preliminary hearing for 16 Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers and the Alpha Upsilon chapter began in June, continued over two days in July and again Thursday and Friday. Two members charged with tampering with evidence waived their hearings.

But there are still matters to resolve before District Judge Allen Sinclair rules on which charges will be bound over for trial. The first is a contempt hearing on Aug. 30 for Penn State football head athletic trainer and former live-in adviser at the fraternity Tim Bream.

After cross-examination ended, attorney Leonard Ambrose asked permission to call Bream as a witness, over objections from District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. Bream hasn't been charged with a crime and Parks Miller has argued that his role as an older adviser living in the house doesn't negate the defendants' culpability. Defense attorneys say their clients looked to Bream as a leader and they allege he was OK with the activities involving alcohol that precipitated Piazza's fall down the houses's basement stairs and eventual death. That negates the elements of recklessness and extreme indifference with which some are charged.

District Judge Allen Sinclair allowed for Bream to be called as a witness, but he wasn't in the courtroom. Ambrose then called Jeffrey Johnson, a Philipsburg-based private investigator and retired state police trooper who detailed his efforts over a month and a half to serve a subpoena on Bream. He said he eventually served him through two university employees -- one at the Lasch Building where Bream works and one with the university's office of general counsel.

That was enough for Sinclair to schedule a hearing for Bream on a contempt citation. Bream's attorney reportedly told Parks Miller that Bream never received the subpoena and would have moved to quash it if he had.

More on the Bream matter here.

After that, Sinclair has scheduled Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 for final arguments before he renders a decision. It's unclear what impact Bream being compelled to testify might have on the scheduling. Sinclair also did not say if he would rule from the bench or wait before deciding on which charges will be bound over to the Court of Common Pleas.

Four attorneys questioned Scicchitano on Friday morning to conclude cross-examination of the detective, who over the course of the hearing had been on the stand for a total of nearly 40 hours. 

Representing Braxton Becker, the Beta Theta Pi house manager who is charged with one count of tampering with evidence, attorney Karen Muir brought up two major issues that have been focal points the past two days.

She prodded Scicchitano about Thursday's revelation that surveillance video footage from cameras in the basement of the house may have been deleted

Police had previously been told that the basement cameras were not working in early February, including the night of Feb. 2 when the bid acceptance event and social that ultimately led to Piazza's death were held. Scicchitano testified on Thursday that new information from his investigation revealed 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 said there is a suspect but has not identified who it is.

Scicchitano testified on Friday that the discovery was made a week and a half ago and that the hard drive was sent to the FBI this week for analysis. 

Muir questioned how Scicchitano communicated the discovery to the district attorney's office, since because he was under oath all summer as a witness he wasn't supposed to speak with Parks Miller. The DA countered that she was allowed to talk to investigators about new developments in the case and that it wasn't relevant to the current charge against Becker, who is accused of suggesting, after Piazza's death that GroupMe messages among fraternity members be deleted.

Scicchitano testified that he told assistant DA Nichole Smith.

As house manager, Becker had keys to the closet where the video system hardware was stored and was the one who gave police access to it, Scicchitano said. He added that he was in the process of getting a search warrant to view a camera that would capture the video closet.

Scicchitano testified that in his initial interview with police, Becker indicated he had watched video footage from the night of Piazza's fall and he described moments when Piazza was alone and could have only been seen through the video recordings.

Muir seemed skeptical that Becker had admitted to watching the recordings and asked Scicchitano if he stood by the statement. Scicchitano said he did.

Becker, Scicchitano testified, was only in the house for a brief period the night of Feb. 2. He is charged for a message he sent to fraternity vice president Ed Gilmartin that said, "You made the current GroupMe, right? Guys are retarded posting some of that sh** in there. Would it be worth deleting it and starting fresh again?"

Gilmartin also is charged with tampering with evidence and waived his misdemeanor.

But Muir sought to illustrate that the brothers were taking cues from Bream.

As had been brought up earlier in the hearing, a text message exchange between Gilmartin and brother Lars Kenyon in which Gilmartin suggests deleting GroupMe 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 Gilmartin confirmed it was Bream.

Muir asked if it was fair to say Bream was directing the brothers on what to do, and Scicchitano said that "based on that text message," it would be.

The final attorney to cross-examine Scicchitano was William Brennan, representing Joseph Ems, who is charged with one count of recklessly endangering another person. While Piazza was passed out on a couch, Ems appeared to have struck him in the abdomen with an open hand, which the prosecution says may have aggravated a ruptured spleen that led to massive internal bleeding.

That was the basis of the charge recommended by the grand jury presentment. After charges were filed, Scicchitano later observed video that appears to show Ems throwing a pair of shoes at Piazza while Piazza was on the couch.

Brennan sought to show that both actions had minimal impact. Piazza had a visible bruise on his abdomen before he was struck by Ems, but Brennan noted that even doctors did not immediately identify that as a sign of a spleen injury.

He pointed out multiple possible ways that the spleen rupture could have occurred or been exacerbated, including Piazza falling into a metal railing, falling down the stairs a second time and possibly walking into a large metal door handle.

Brennan also said there's no indication Ems struck Piazza with a serious amount of force.

As for the shoes, Brennan said they were light, mostly canvas boat shoes and that it does not appear on video that Ems through them with the intent of hurting Piazza, or that they hit him anywhere that caused injury.

"He threw the shoes at him," Scicchitano said. "That’s what I saw."

Earlier in the morning, Jason Dunkle, the attorney for both Ryan McCann and Lucas Rockwell, sought to show that both of his clients' actions were more benign that portrayed by the prosecution.

Both are charged with tampering with evidence. The charges are based on their attempts to put a shirt on Piazza, who at that point was rigid and unresponsive, the morning of Feb. 3, before paramedics were called.

It was McCann who ultimately called 911. Around that time, video appears to show other members cleaning up before police and paramedics arrived, but Scicchitano testified that neither McCann nor Rockwell participated in that.

Instead, Rockwell sat with Piazza until help arrived. McCann, meanwhile waited for police, then paramedics to arrive and escorted them into the great hall where Piazza was.

Under questioning from Dunkle, Scicchitano said none of Piazza's injuries were covered up. Dunkle asked if the detective knew of Rockwell asking an officer what he should be doing for Piazza, but Scicchitano could not recall that. Dunkle also described McCann as assisting paramedics when it was time to move Piazza.

On redirect, Parks Miller asked what McCann told investigators about calling 911.

"He said he knew when he made the 911 call he knew that their house was going to be shut down," Scicchitano said.

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