Closing arguments in the criminal cases against 18 fraternity members and a Penn State fraternity ended Thursday as the seventh day of the Beta Theta Pi preliminary hearing drew to a close.
In the longest preliminary hearing in recent Centre County history, the District Attorney’s Office, attorneys for the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi and 16 of the fraternity members sat through almost 60 hours of testimony, evidence, cross examination and closing arguments revolving around the death of Beta pledge Timothy Piazza.
Piazza, 19, died from injuries suffered after a reported Feb. 2 fall during a bid acceptance night party at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house on Penn State’s campus. Prosecutors allege that an alcohol obstacle course, along with a social event, directly contributed to the fall and subsequent fatal injuries.
Eleven attorneys concluded their arguments Thursday, as closing arguments had begun on Wednesday following testimony by Penn State head athletic trainer Tim Bream. Bream served as house adviser during the time of the incident.
Leonard Ambrose, representing Joseph Sala, returned to Bream’s testimony, saying that until he had taken the stand, the commonwealth had presented the fraternity as a “dry house.” Bream, however, had testified that the executive committee did, prior to the acceptance night party, discuss getting an alcohol permit from the university.
This permit would have given the fraternity the ability to purchase all the alcohol they would have wanted, Ambrose said, saying the prosecution would expect Sala to be aware of the risk that someone would become intoxicated, slip and fall, but Bream was free of that consciousness.
Attorneys, such as Ambrose and Marc Neff, representing Michael Schiavone, asked the court to be aware of the evidence, specifically what it didn’t show. Ambrose claimed there was no evidence his client directly gave alcohol to any of the pledges or even knew that Piazza had been drinking, while Neff noted that his client was a “rolling bid” and had not participated in the alcohol gauntlet, saying Schiavone would not have known what would be involved.
Neff continued the arguments about the alcohol permits, saying if one was issued, it would mean the event was sanctioned by Penn State. He referred to a pair of Intrafraternity Council security checkers who stopped at one point in the night and were reportedly met by Schiavone, who subsequently showed them around and signed off on some paperwork.
The identity of the checkers remains unknown, and the form signed by his client also has not been made available, Neff said.
“What is the big secret?” he asked.
Extra attention was paid to the idea that being a part of the fraternity and the acceptance night itself was a voluntary act, as Neff and Evan Kelly, representing Craig Heimer, both stated their clients were rolling bids who had not participated in their respective bid acceptance nights or alcohol obstacle courses. This, they said, proved that there was no requirement to drink in order to be accepted.
In arguing for Luke Visser, attorney Theodore Simon echoed the idea that drinking wasn’t required, also noting that the obstacle course and the subsequent social should be viewed as two separate elements when it came to charges.
“There’s more factual evidence that this was an accident than the result of criminal conduct,” Simon said.
Ronald McGlaughlin, representing Parker Yochim, stated that the best evidence to how much was consumed by the pledges that night was to hear testimony by the pledges themselves, but no direct testimony by the pledges was given by the prosecutors. Without them, he claimed, how could the commonwealth be sure of how much any of them drank?
In her rebuttal arguments, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller again relied heavily on two cases she said set the standard for a majority of the charges — the state Superior Court case of Commonwealth v. Danielle Packer and the state Supreme Court case of Commonwealth v. Judith McCloskey. Both cases involve vehicle crashes resulting in death that were directly caused by intoxication or being under the influence of a controlled substance.
In the McCloskey case, in particular, Parks Miller argued that the defendant was found guilty even though she did not directly provide minors with alcohol, but did provide them a location to drink, setting off a chain of events — a similar situation to many of the fraternity members who face hazing and furnishing charges but did not directly provide pledges with alcohol.
Court is expected to reconvene at 11 a.m. Friday, as District Judge Allen Sinclair said he would make his decision on what charges will be bound over at that time.