Throughout the course of the Beta Theta Pi preliminary hearing, arguments have been made regarding the legal definitions of assault and reckless endangerment, and how they apply to the case surrounding the death of Timothy Piazza.
It’s been argued by several of the defense attorneys involved in the case that assault occurs when an individual attempts to cause serious bodily injury “knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” Likewise, a person commits reckless endangerment when he or she “recklessly engages in conduct which places or may place another person in danger of death or serious bodily injury.”
These are definitions that don’t apply to their clients, they have argued, as the fraternity members reportedly had no intention of harming anyone the night of the bid acceptance event on Feb. 2.
In her arguments, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has relied heavily on two cases she said set the standard for the charges against the 18 fraternity members. While both involve vehicular deaths, she maintains the elements of causation and malice remain the same.
The first case cited involves the 2003 Northampton County trial of Judith C. McCloskey, convicted on three counts of involuntary manslaughter — a charge faced by eight Beta members as well as the Alpha Upsilon chapter of the fraternity itself.
According to state Superior Court documents, McCloskey’s teenage daughters hosted a party in the basement of their home in April 2001 in which two kegs of beer were made available. McCloskey reportedly knew of the party, and helped in getting ice and blankets for the kegs.
About 40 people showed up, the court said, all under the age of 21. McCloskey did not go into the basement, but did regularly interact with teens who testifed to drinking in her presence, according to the documents.
Four teens ended up leaving in a vehicle after the police arrived, the court said. The driver lost control, flipped the vehicle and all passengers were ejected. Three of the four died in the crash.
In her appeal, McCloskey claimed that the state had not proven its case regarding mental state and causation, saying that involuntary manslaughter involves a state of recklessness or gross negligence.
The court showed evidence in the case established that McCloskey knew alcohol was being served to minors, which demonstrated recklessness. Further, noting that teens were served alcohol on her property, her furnishing of alcohol caused a chain of events that led to the death of three people, proving causation.
Parks Miller has repeatedly argued that many of the fraternity members had prior knowledge of the results of the alcohol obstacle course and were directly involved in providing alcohol to minors, including Piazza.
The second case, a recent Centre County case, reaffirmed the “long established distinctions between ordinary recklessness and malice in the context of a death ... caused by driving under the influence.”
The CDT previously reported on the case of Danielle N. Packer, who was sentenced in 2015 for the death of Matthew Snyder.
In August 2012, Packer and her fiance purchased “Dust-Off,” an aerosol product designed to blow dust off of electronics, for the purpose of getting high. She reported “huffing” the product prior to driving, and huffing it again while operating her vehicle.
She eventually drove down the wrong lane of traffic and hit a vehicle driven by Snyder, who was declared dead on scene.
An appeal to the state Superior Court challenged the finding of malice in her third-degree murder and aggravated assault convictions, but the subsequent opinion noted that “when Packer drove her vehicle immediately after ‘huffing’ at least three times, knowing the likelihood that she could black out and become unconscious, she ‘disregarded an unjustified and extremely high risk’ that her actions ‘might cause death or serious bodily injury.’”
The decision was reaffirmed by the state Supreme Court on Aug. 22.
Defense attorneys have challenged the cases as they relate to the Beta Theta Pi case, including Theodore Simon, who said Thursday that automobiles were involved in the cases, unlike the case the court is hearing. He further stated that none of the defendants can be shown as having “malice,” or any intent to harm Piazza.