Defense looks for holes in Penn State pledge death hearing
BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Lawyers for members of a Penn State fraternity who face charges in the death of a pledge spent much of a daylong preliminary hearing Tuesday focusing on what their clients didn’t do the night Tim Piazza was injured.
A third full day of testimony by the lead detective ended with him still on the stand — and the judge planning two more days next month before he will decide if there is enough evidence to send the charges to county court for trial.
The now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi chapter and 18 of its members are accused of a range of crimes for their actions related to the Feb. 4 death of the 19-year-old Piazza, a sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey.
One by one, lawyers for some of the 16 defendants in court — two others waived the hearing — pointed out during questioning of State College Police Detective Dave Scicchitano that their clients were not involved at key points during the night Piazza drank dangerous amounts of alcohol and was fatally injured by a series of falls.
The lawyers noted that certain defendants weren’t involved in procuring alcohol for the bid acceptance night, didn’t help operate a “gauntlet” of rapid-fire drinking stations, weren’t around when Piazza fell down a set of basement steps, didn’t participate in incriminating text exchanges, or weren’t among those who made futile, half-hearted and even counterproductive attempts to help as Piazza spent an agonizing night moving between a first-floor couch and the floor of the darkened mansion.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller called the defense tactic an effort to distract attention from what did occur as Piazza suffered a fractured skull, severe abdominal injuries and bleeding in his brain and stomach.
“I call it the straw man defense,” Parks Miller said after the hearing. “It’s a confusion defense.”
Scicchitano said Piazza seemed to become highly inebriated early in the evening, and was seen on video surveillance footage with a “staggering walk, swaying stance, his head was bobbing around.” A short time later he fell down steps for the first time and had to be carried up to the chapter’s main first-floor hall.
He may have fallen again — members of the fraternity found him unconscious in the basement the next morning, then waited about 40 minutes before they summoned emergency aid. Piazza died Feb. 4 at a hospital.
Lawyers pressed Scicchitano about his investigation into the pledge ceremony and subsequent party, raising questions about how much pressure Piazza would have felt to engaged in the heavy drinking that undergirds some of the hazing allegations.
Pledges were captured on camera being directed to run through the series of drinking stations that featured beer, wine and vodka.
Scicchitano said joining in the drinking was a “rite of passage and the way to get in” to the fraternity.
The defense attorneys also questioned Scicchitano about whether Piazza endured the second fall down the basement steps or could have walked to the spot where he was found. The detective conceded that both scenarios were possible.
Some of the defendants are accused of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, while others face less serious allegations.
Parker Jax Yochim, of Erie, arrives at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., Tuesday, July 11, 2017, for a preliminary hearing on charges related to the fraternity hazing death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza.
Beta Theta Pi fraternnity brother Lars Kenyon arrives at the Centre County courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., for another day of prelims in the death of Timothy Piazza on Monday, July 10, 2017. Testimony resumed Monday in a preliminary hearing for the Beta Theta Pi chapter and 16 of its members, accused in the February death of 19-year-old pledge Tim Piazza after a night of heavy drinking.
Beta Theta Pi fraternity member Gary Dibileo leaves the Centre County Courthouse, during a preliminary for the fraternity and 16 of its members, accused in the death of 19-year-old pledge Tim Piazza, Monday, July 10, 2017, in Bellefonte, Pa. A judge on Monday heard about worried texts from members of the Penn State fraternity and defense questions about whether Piazza had been drinking voluntarily before he died in February.
Beta Theta Pi member Michael Bonatucci leaves the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., after another day of prelims on Monday, July 10, 2017. A judge on Monday heard about worried texts from members of the Penn State fraternity and defense questions about whether a pledge had been drinking voluntarily before he died in February.