The third day of preliminary hearings for 19 defendants in the death of 19-year-old Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza was not the last.
On Tuesday, the complicated proceeding was continued after a day focused on defense attorneys’ work to poke holes in the prosecution’s story about the events surrounding Piazza’s alleged fall down a flight of stairs at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house on Feb. 2.
It was a day marked by arguments about who did what, how much Piazza drank and what constituted pressure to comply with pledging activities for the fraternity.
Attorney Stephen Trialonas represents Beta pledgemaster Daniel Casey. He questioned State College police Detective David Scicchitano on the legality of charging Casey for planning a “life-threatening” event in the form of an alcoholic obstacle course, a line of questioning quickly shut down by Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.
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Trialonas also addressed the number of charges faced by his client, pointing out that while Casey faces 50 counts of reckless endangerment for the 50 pledges who had reportedly participated in gauntlets over the semesters, some of the pledges listed had not been part of past obstacle courses. Scicchitano testified that he could not say for certain if all pledges had been part of the events.
Parks Miller objected to a line of questioning to determine exactly how much Piazza drank during the gauntlet, saying the charges cover the drinking done during the obstacle course and the following social party as a whole.
Questioning became heated when Trialonas requested a portion of the surveillance video be replayed. Initially rejected by Parks Miller, attorneys for the other brothers demanded sanctions against the district attorney after she refuted their objections.
Parks Miller is appealing a May ruling from President Judge Thomas King Kistler to make copies of the video footage available to the fraternity and the 18 members charged in the case. The Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi alleged in court documents that the copy that had been provided to them had been “modified” after police took possession in February.
District Judge Allen Sinclair ordered that the video be made available to the court and allowed Trialonas to continue his questioning.
Trialonas’ cross-examination continued exploring the fact that Casey was only present with Piazza for about 12 minutes before 911 was called in the morning. He also pursued the idea that Piazza did not fall down the steps a second time.
Trialonas and other attorneys put a spotlight on Piazza’s liquor consumption before the injuries that led to his death from brain and spleen damage after going 12 hours before emergency personnel were called. They wanted to see the amount of vodka left in the bottle at the first station of the gauntlet.
Scicchitano could not testify to the exact amount consumed during the course of the obstacle course, but Parks Miller argued that the exact amount was moot, citing that the charges covered the entire night as a whole.
Scicchitano broke down the perceived difference between voluntary drinking and forced drinking, saying the pledges were “pushed” from station to station. He also testified that the course was a “rite of passage” for the pledges, saying they felt they would not be accepted if they didn’t drink.
Attorney Daniel McGee, representing Jonah Neuman, focused on the aggravated assault and reckless endangerment charges his client faces, saying Neuman played no part in planning the event or procuring the alcohol.
Scicchitano testified that while Neuman is not an officer or part of the social committee for the fraternity, he is seen on video giving beers to three pledges and denied supplying beer to the pledges when interviewed.
Eighteen fraternity members are charged in the case, in addition to the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi itself. The charges vary across the defendants from involuntary manslaughter to hazing to tampering with evidence, but 12 of the members face some charge for furnishing alcohol.
Andrew Shubin, representing Nicholas Kubera, questioned Scicchitano about his client’s role running the “beer shotgun” station of the obstacle course. Kubera’s charges, according to Scicchitano, resulted from reportedly handing out beer at the station to 14 pledges.
Shubin argued that his client was a newly initiated brother, and as such had no role in the planning of the event. There was no evidence, he said, that Kubera saw or knew of the fall that reportedly happened during the social event.
Attorney Rocco Cipparone, representing Michael Bonatucci, pursued a line of questioning establishing his client’s actions during the evening in question, saying that as all were charged as accomplices, it was important to separate what his client did and did not do.
Citing information passed to him by Alpha Upsilon chapter attorney Michael Leahey, whom Cipparone said is the only attorney outside of the prosecution to see the surveillance video, Bonatucci reportedly left the Beta house several minutes before Piazza’s first reported fall. Over a series of pointed questions, Scicchitano testified that he had no evidence Bonatucci saw or knew Piazza had fallen, had been a part of text messages before or after the event or had been a part of procuring the alcohol for the event.
Parks Miller argued that Bonatucci directly contributed to the event by reportedly helping to set up the beer shotgun station and had passed beers to four underage pledges.
The final day of the hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 10-11.