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Parks Miller Critical of Cantorna's Request for Attorney General to Take Beta Theta Pi Case

by and on November 21, 2017 6:51 PM

Hours after Centre County District Attorney-elect Bernie Cantorna announced he has asked the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General to take over the prosecution of the case surrounding Penn State fraternity pledge Tim Piazza’s death, current DA Stacy Parks Miller issued a statement of her own condemning Cantorna's decision.

Cantorna said he has previously served as counsel to some involved in the case against former Beta Theta Pi members and that after seeking advice from the Pennsylvania State Bar Ethics Committee he had asked the OAG to handle the prosecution.

Parks Miller said in a release she is “disappointed but wholly unsurprised” by Cantorna’s move. She said Cantorna was asked not to make any public statements about his intentions for moving forward with the case, and she isn’t sure why he decided to release a statement otherwise this morning.

Parks Miller says Cantorna has not publicly represented any of the defendants in the case, which now involves 26 former brothers of the fraternity in addition to the fraternity itself. She says representing any of the defendants in a prior matter is not grounds for recusal in the case.

“I find it impossible to believe that any legitimate well-intentioned candidate running for district attorney in any county would consult with a criminal suspect to defend that person in connection with a case he knows his office will be prosecuting should his quest for election be successful,” Parks Miller said. “…It is critical that [Cantorna] step up and assume the mantle as the county’s chief law enforcement officer, but I fear he is off to a bad start.”

She went on to question whether Cantorna's decision "is really a pretext to hide cover for a lack of ability to prosecute a case of the severity and magnitude that led to the killing of Tim Piazza..." and said the assistant district attorneys currently in her office are capable of handling the case.

Cantorna did not respond to a request for comment about Parks Miller's remarks. In his earlier statement, Cantorna cited rules of professional responsibility and said he asked the OAG to take over, "...so these cases can move forward in an efficient, timely and above-board manner.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the request is being reviewed.

Tom Kline, attorney for Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn, told the Daily Collegian that the family was "pleased" with Cantorna's decision.

"The Piazzas have full confidence that state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his office will bring all those responsible for Tim's death to justice," Kline told the Collegian.

Cantorna defeated Parks Miller by earning 70 percent of the vote in May’s Democratic primary election and won the Republican write-in nomination. He was officially elected to serve as District Attorney earlier this month. 

A history of bad blood between Parks Miller and Cantorna of them dates back to 2014, when Cantorna was working as a defense attorney for Jalene McClure -- another case Cantorna has asked the OAG to take. McClure was convicted of assault of a child who was in her care but that verdict has since been overturned and the case is moving toward retrial.

The conflict between Parks Miller and Cantorna continued through the tangle of controversies that engulfed the Centre County Courthouse for the past three years and into the election.

Cantorna's full statement, followed by Parks Miller’s are:

Bernie Cantorna statement

Today I advised PA Attorney General Shapiro and current Centre County District Attorney Parks Miller that I have conflicts of interest in the Piazza case and Commonwealth v. McClure. Because I previously served as counsel to some of those involved in these cases,I sought the advice of the State Bar Ethics Committee about how to handle these matters going forward. I have been advised to ask the Attorney General to take over these cases. I have done that so these cases can move forward in an efficient, timely, and above board manner.

Here are the relevant points of law that impact me as I shift my role from defense attorney to prosecutor: Rule 1.9 Duties to Former Clients and Rule 1.11 Special Conflicts of Interest for Former and Current Government Officers and Employees. These Rules govern what an incoming prosecutor can and cannot do upon taking office. First, the Rules of Professional Responsibility prohibit a defense attorney from acting as a prosecutor in a matter involving a former client. Second, these Rules also preclude an attorney from participating in a matter in which the attorney participated personally and substantially while in private practice—unless both the client and the Commonwealth give informed consent to that representation. That sort of agreement might be possible in situations where the stakes are small, but not in cases like these.

I ran for office on a promise that I would work to restore integrity to our legal system. Doing so means I must follow the ethics rules imposed on me and ensure that cases are not delayed. For these reasons, I am acting now as opposed to after taking office. Given that I will have no role in these cases, I have no further comment on the matters.

Stacy Parks Miller statement

I am astonished at the recent comments from District Attorney-elect Cantorna that he intends to try and offload the cases arising out of the tragic death of Tim Piazza to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. With very few exceptions, the presumption is that all cases in Pennsylvania are prosecuted by county district attorneys and by law NOT the Attorney General. A county district attorney has jurisdiction over every criminal violation of Pennsylvania law occurring within the county. When a DA does refer a case, the referring County foots that bill.

Under the law, a county district attorney may refer a case to the Attorney General if a REAL (as opposed to a pretext) conflict of interest exists, and must convince the Attorney General of the validity of any such conflict. A second reason for a county district attorney to refer a case to the Attorney General is if the county district attorney believes he and his office are unable to handle the cases because the cases are too hard and the local district attorney lacks the ability and resources to adequately undertake the prosecutions. Obviously, my office has the resources and my team is very capable as we have not had an issue handling the matter.

I find it impossible to believe that any legitimate well-intentioned candidate running for district attorney in any county would consult with a criminal suspect to defend that person in connection with a case he knows his office will be prosecuting should his quest for election be successful. Bernie Cantorna announced his run for District Attorney in December of 2016. Timothy Piazza tragically died in February of 2017. Therefore, if he actually consulted with a criminal defendant in this matter, he did so knowing it would prevent him from seeking justice for Tim if he were elected. That would be unthinkable.

He did not publicly represent any of these Defendants to date. If he merely represented one of the current charged Defendants on a prior matter previously, this does NOT require or provide grounds for recusal. (This office is not suggesting any of these Defendants have prior matters.)

The conflict must be real and not manufactured to avoid carrying out the duties inherent in the Office of District Attorney. I am quite certain, that the Attorney General will be looking closely to evaluate the legitimacy of the claim by Mr. Cantorna here. They have not accepted the matter and will not review it until after January. He was asked to not make any public statements about his future intentions in this case, but he disregarded that request for reasons unknown.

If the claim of conflict is really a pretext to hide cover for a lack of ability to prosecute a case of the severity and magnitude that led to the killing of Tim Piazza, then Mr. Cantorna should simply admit it. He owes the truth to the family and the public. There can be no shame in doing so, since the voters elected him knowing his experience trying criminal cases was limited to a single criminal trial as a defense attorney during my tenure and absolutely no experience whatsoever as a prosecutor. The career staff in my office is more than able to seek justice for the Piazza family. The Assistant District Attorneys under me bring years of prosecutorial experience with them, have developed this case under my lead from the day my office was notified of Tim’s case, and are intimately familiar with the extensive details of this case inside and out. If he has a real conflict, rather than try to transfer it to the Attorney General before he even arrives, he can insulate himself and let my talented Centre County prosecutors who are devoted to this case do their job. While I may be exiting, there is no substitute for the remaining talented prosecutors who have lived this case for last 11 months and know the players, worked as a team, know thousands of pages of evidence and have spent countless sleepless hours and by now lived through multiple hearings against the Defendants and their lawyers. They are dedicated to justice for Tim Piazza. This type of decision can rob this case of those unquestionable advantages, no matter how competently the Attorney General crime division operates.

I am disappointed that, already, Mr. Cantorna has made statements that he is unwilling to make the tough choices and take in the tough cases and fight hard for the people of Centre County and those victims and their families hurt by crime here. It is critical that he step up and assume the mantle as the county’s chief law enforcement officer, but I fear he is off to a bad start. I am disappointed but wholly unsurprised. I will continue to everything in my power to continue to help the Piazza family and seek justice for Tim, in or out of this office.



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.


Elissa Hill is managing editor for Onward State.
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