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Penn State frat brothers await key ruling in pledge's death

Written by Mark Scolforo/The Associated Press | Sep 1, 2017 2:56 AM
timothy_piazza_case.jpg

FILE PHOTO: Lars Kenyon, center, arrives for his preliminary hearing on charges related to the hazing death of Timothy Piazza at 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 judge is to decide whether to keep alive charges against Penn State fraternity members linked to the death of a pledge whose agonizing night after a fall down stairs was captured by security cameras.

District Justice Allen Sinclair must decide Friday whether prosecutors have put on enough evidence to send the charges against the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and 16 former members to county court for trial.

His decision follows a hard-fought, unusually long, seven-day preliminary hearing in which the defendants and a platoon of defense attorneys wedged into the courtroom fought against allegations that a night of hazing and heavy drinking caused the death of Tim Piazza on Feb. 4.

In all, 18 fraternity brothers face charges that for some include including involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, while others are charged with less serious allegations. Two defendants waived the hearing.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has argued that members of the fraternity pressured Piazza and other pledges to drink heavily, plying them with wine, vodka and beer after a ceremony to mark their decision to pledge the organization.

That pressure included running them through a speed-drinking "gauntlet" and directing them to collectively drain a large bottle of vodka.

The security video recorded Piazza, 19, a sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey, appearing intoxicated and being led to a couch after 11 p.m. A few minutes later, he fell head-first down a set of basement stairs and had to be carried back up in an unconscious state.

For several hours members of the fraternity appeared to take half-hearted and even counterproductive measures to tend to their injured friend, pouring liquid on him and strapping on a loaded backpack to prevent him from rolling over and choking on vomit.

In the early morning hours Piazza was pictured stumbling from the couch to other areas on the vast house's first floor, including falls into a door and onto a stone floor.

He somehow ended up back in the basement the next morning and was again carried back upstairs to a couch. It took another 40 minutes for fraternity members to call an ambulance.
Authorities said Piazza had ingested a dangerous amount of alcohol and suffered severe head and abdominal injuries. He soon died at a hospital.

Defense attorneys have sought to convince Sinclair that their clients' roles were minimal or their actions did not amount to criminal behavior. They argued the students had little reason to anticipate tragic results from a night that also included an alcohol-fueled social mixer with a sorority group.

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

Parks Miller said many of the defense arguments would be more suitable for a jury to consider. She disputed a suggestion that defendants would not have known of the danger because no one had died 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 told the judge.

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," Engle said.

He challenged Parks Miller's approach to charging the men as accomplices, arguing that would require a principal actor 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 said the speed-drinking gauntlet was designed by the group "for maximum devastation."

If any charges are forwarded to county court for trial, it's unlikely Parks Miller will prosecute them. She lost the Democratic primary this spring and will be out of office in January.

This article has been updated. An earlier version appears below: 

(Bellefonte) -- A judge is to decide whether to keep alive charges against Penn State fraternity members linked to the death of a pledge whose agonizing night after a fall down stairs was captured by security cameras in February.

District Justice Allen Sinclair must decide today whether prosecutors have put on enough evidence to send the charges against the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and 16 former members to county court for trial.

His decision follows a hard-fought, unusually long, seven-day preliminary hearing in which the defendants and a platoon of defense attorneys wedged into the courtroom fought against allegations that a night of hazing and heavy drinking caused the death of Tim Piazza on Feb. 4.

In all, 18 fraternity brothers face charges that for some include including involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, while others are charged with less serious allegations. Two defendants waived the hearing.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has argued that members of the fraternity pressured Piazza and other pledges to drink heavily, plying them with wine, vodka and beer after a ceremony to mark their decision to pledge the organization.

That pressure included running them through a speed-drinking "gauntlet" and directing them to collectively drain a large bottle of vodka.

The security video recorded Piazza, 19, a sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey, appearing intoxicated and being led to a couch after 11 p.m. A few minutes later, he fell head-first down a set of basement stairs and had to be carried back up in an unconscious state.

For several hours members of the fraternity appeared to take half-hearted and even counterproductive measures to tend to their injured friend, pouring liquid on him and strapping on a loaded backpack to prevent him from rolling over and choking on vomit.

In the early morning hours Piazza was pictured stumbling from the couch to other areas on the vast house's first floor, including falls into a door and onto a stone floor.

He somehow ended up back in the basement the next morning and was again carried back upstairs to a couch. It took another 40 minutes for fraternity members to call an ambulance.

Authorities said Piazza had ingested a dangerous amount of alcohol and suffered severe head and abdominal injuries. He soon died at a hospital.

Defense attorneys have sought to persuade Sinclair that their clients' roles were minimal or their actions did not amount to criminal behavior. They argued the students had little reason to anticipate tragic results from a night that also included an alcohol-fueled social mixer with a sorority group.

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

Parks Miller said many of the defense arguments would be more suitable for a jury to consider. She disputed a suggestion that defendants would not have known of the danger because no one had died 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 told the judge.

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," Engle said.

He challenged Parks Miller's approach to charging the men as accomplices, arguing that would require a principal actor 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 said the speed-drinking gauntlet was designed by the group "for maximum devastation."

If any charges are forwarded to county court for trial, it's unlikely Parks Miller will prosecute them. She lost the Democratic primary this spring and will be out of office in January.

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