DA-elect Cantorna steps aside in Beta Theta Pi, brothers prosecution

Incoming Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna has recused himself from the Beta Theta Pi case.
Incoming Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna has recused himself from the Beta Theta Pi case. Centre Daily Times, file

Bernie Cantorna will not be prosecuting the defendants in the Beta Theta Pi hazing case.

Cantorna, who takes office as Centre County district attorney in 2018, announced Tuesday he will not be the prosecutor in the case against the former Penn State fraternity members, and the fraternity itself, accused of crimes relating to the February death of pledge Timothy Piazza.

The longtime defense attorney said he will be turning that process over to the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, citing conflicts of interest.

“Today I advised Pa. Attorney General (Josh) Shapiro and current Centre County District Attorney (Stacy) Parks Miller that I have conflicts of interest in the Piazza case and Commonwealth v. McClure,” Cantorna said in a Tuesday news release.

Cantorna previously served as defense in the case of Jalene McClure, who was convicted of aggravated assault in 2014. McClure’s conviction and sentence were vacated in 2016. The case raised a courthouse controversy about alleged inappropriate texting between Parks Miller and former Judge Bradley Lunsford, who presided over the trial.

Cantorna has not indicated what conflict of interest he has in the Piazza case.

He stated in the release that he sought the advice of the state Bar Ethics Committee and was advised to ask the attorney general to take over the cases.

Citing his shift from defense to prosecution, he noted that separate points of law prohibit a defense attorney from acting as a prosecutor in a matter involving a former client. The rules also preclude an attorney from participating in a matter in which the attorney participated personally and substantially while in private practice.

“I ran for office on a promise that I would work to restore integrity to our legal system,” Cantorna said. “Doing so means I must follow the ethics rules imposed on me and ensure that cases are not delayed.”

He declined to comment further on the matter.

Parks Miller, who lost her re-election bid to Cantorna in the Democratic primary in May just days after announcing the charges against the fraternity and 18 brothers, did not oppose a motion for trial postponement from the defense in the case.

That was granted by President Judge Pamela Ruest on Nov. 8 and moves any trial on the case to the December term of court, which runs through February, placing the case likely in Cantorna’s lap had he not recused himself.

Parks Miller said she was “astonished” at Cantorna’s move, calling it “offloading” the case to the OAG, and struck back at claims he had previously represented one of the defendants. She also suggested that while Cantorna might recuse himself, there was no need to recuse other attorneys in the DA’s office.

“With very few exceptions, the presumption is that all cases in Pennsylvania are prosecuted by county district attorneys and by law, not the attorney general. A county district attorney has jurisdiction over every criminal violation of Pennsylvania law occurring within the county. When a DA does refer a case, the referring county foots that bill,” she said.

AG Josh Shapiro’s spokesman Joe Grace said the office will “review Mr. Cantorna’s claim of conflicts and will make a determination of his request after a careful analysis of the facts.”

Timothy Piazza’s parents are not upset with Cantorna’s decision.

In a statement Evelyn and Jim Piazza said they are “pleased that Bernie Cantorna, the incoming Centre County, PA District Attorney, has made an early determination to transfer the ongoing criminal proceedings to the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office in January.”

Attorney Thomas Kline, who represents the family, added, “The Piazzas have full confidence that state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his office will bring all those responsible for Tim’s death to justice.”

Piazza, 19, died on Feb. 4 after reportedly falling down the stairs during a Beta Theta Pi bid acceptance night. A lengthy investigation into his death eventually led to charges against the Alpha Upsilon chapter of the fraternity as well as 18 Beta members.

The most serious charges against the fraternity members were dismissed in September after a monthslong preliminary hearing involving all 19 parties charged. Parks Miller announced her intent on refiling charges and seeking a new judge to rehear the case, and a motion to have the charges reinstated was filed in October.

New charges were filed in the Piazza case recently, as Parks Miller announced on Nov. 13 that new video evidence was discovered, implicating additional Beta members in the case. A total of 17 men were charged under this new filing, with five facing felony charges and seven previously charged brothers facing new charges.

A hearing has been scheduled Dec. 7 on Parks Miller’s request for a new district judge to preside over the preliminary hearings.

Penn State announced in early November that 32 students were investigated in relation to Piazza’s death. Nineteen took a “conduct withdrawal” from the university before the disciplinary process could conclude, while seven students were found to be in violation of the university’s Student Code of Conduct for violations including hazing and “creating a condition that endangers.”