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Judge to soon rule in Penn State frat death case

Written by Mark Scolforo/Associated Press | Aug 31, 2017 12:06 PM
penn_state_frat_timothy_piazza.jpg

FILE PHOTO: Brendan Young Jr., walks out for a lunch break during his preliminary hearing on charges related to the hazing death of Timothy Piazza at the Penn State's Beta Theta Pi fraternity, at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., Monday, June 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)

(Bellefonte) -- A Pennsylvania judge says he'll rule Friday morning on whether there's enough evidence against Penn State fraternity brothers in the death of a pledge to send the case to trial.

District Judge Allen Sinclair made the announcement Thursday after the seventh day of a preliminary hearing.

Eighteen members of now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi and the fraternity face charges that stem from the February death of 19-year-old Lebanon, New Jersey, resident Tim Piazza after a night of drinking and hazing.

Defense lawyers are arguing the judge should dismiss some or all of the charges, which for some include involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.

An earlier story appears below. 

(Bellefonte) -- Attorneys for Penn State fraternity members charged in the death of a pledge after a night of drinking and hazing argued Thursday that their clients' roles were minimal or did not amount to criminal behavior.

A preliminary hearing for 16 members of Beta Theta Pi continued for a seventh day, with lawyers arguing to District Judge Allen Sinclair they had little reason to anticipate that 19-year-old Tim Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey, would consume dangerous amounts of alcohol and fall several times.

"Yes, there's excessive drinking on college campuses," argued attorney Theodore Simon, who represents Luke Visser. "That does not transform it into criminal behavior."

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said many of the defense arguments are more suitable for a jury to consider, and she disputed a suggestion that the fraternity members wouldn't have known of the danger because no one had died previously during the fraternity chapter's long history.

"As far as this idea, 'Well, nobody died before,' do they really think they get a free death before someone is held responsible?" Parks Miller said to Sinclair.

The judge said he may decide by the weekend whether to forward charges to county court for trial. The fraternity is also a defendant, and two others waived the hearing.

Defense attorney Michael Engle argued that "the voluntariness of the drinking" is an important factor when considering Piazza's fate.

"What we have is evidence from this record that this tragic death was simply not foreseeable here," said Engle, who represents defendant Gary DiBileo.

He also challenged Parks Miller's approach to charging the men as accomplices, arguing that would require a principal actor and that was not established.

"You've heard over and over again, all of these individuals are accomplices, but as a matter of law, these individuals can't be accomplices with one another," he told the judge.

Parks Miller repeatedly said the actions of the fraternity brothers, who directed pledges to run through a series of drinking stations and then did not get help for Piazza until the next morning, showed the sort of recklessness required to support some of the allegations.

Surveillance video from the fraternity house showed Piazza endured a painful night, most of it on a first-floor couch, and members did not take effective steps to help him. The sophomore engineering student was later found to have suffered severe head and abdominal injuries, and he died at a hospital.

"People watching that video could barely continue to watch it, based upon how gruesome it is," Parks Miller said.

Former members of the now shuttered fraternity face charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault to hazing and alcohol violations.

An earlier story appears below. 

(Bellefonte) -- A district judge may decide by the weekend whether prosecutors have presented enough evidence to hold a trial for former members of a now-closed Penn State fraternity charged in connection with a pledge's death.

Before a preliminary hearing resumed for a seventh day on Thursday, District Judge Allen Sinclair told reporters he expected the arguments to wrap up later in the day, and he could rule on Friday whether charges should be forwarded to county court for trial.

Attorneys for 10 of the 17 defendants are still waiting to make their final arguments.

Early Thursday, defense attorney Michael Engle argued that "the voluntariness of the drinking" is an important factor when considering the death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey.

"What we have is evidence from this record that this tragic death was simply not foreseeable here," said Engle, who represents defendant Gary DiBileo.

Former members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity face charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault to hazing and alcohol violations.

On Wednesday, defense lawyers asked Sinclair to dismiss some or all of the charges, arguing their clients didn't act recklessly or maliciously during a night of drinking and hazing.

Lawyers for five of the eight fraternity brothers who face the most serious offenses attacked the prosecution's case.

The lawyer for Brendan Young, who was chapter president the night in February when Piazza drank a dangerous amount and fell several times, argued Young saw nothing to make him think the pledge was at risk of dying.

"He wasn't there through the whole night. He did not observe any injuries to Mr. Piazza. He did not observe anything that would lead him to believe that he was at substantial risk," Young's lawyer, Frank Fina, told Sinclair.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said Young was "in charge of the fraternity" and sent text messages afterward indicating he was responsible.

She said the defendants led Piazza to hazing and excessive speed drinking, aiming to see "how drunk they could get him in the shortest period possible."

That behavior, she argued, meets state standards for criminal liability.

Security cameras showed Piazza spent an excruciating night in the fraternity after he was injured, most of it on a couch in the first-floor great hall, as members made half-hearted and even counterproductive efforts to help him.

Piazza was unconscious by the time he was discovered in the basement the next morning, and he was found to have suffered severe head and abdominal injuries. He later died at a hospital.
Wednesday's hearing began with the final witness, a live-in adviser at the Beta Theta Pi house who said he did not see the alcohol hazing or other events leading to Piazza's death.

Tim Bream, also the football team's head athletic trainer, said he went to his room after watching the pledge ceremony and left for work the next morning without noticing Piazza.
"I, in no way, shape or form, would give permission to any type of alcohol abuse, gauntlet or anything like that," said Bream, describing himself as a nondrinker. "Nor did I know about it that evening."

A lawyer for the alumni corporation that owns the house argued to the judge that charges were not properly filed against the entity.

Parks Miller said, "The local chapter has been charged and they're charged with a corporate theory of liability."

Two other defendants have waived their preliminary hearing.

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