Crime

The Beta Theta Pi hearing has a new judge. Here's why

Attorney General Josh Shapiro outlines case for charges against Penn State frat members

Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, on May 1, 2018, discusses differences in charges against former Beta Theta Pi fraternity members being pursued by his office and those originally filed by former Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.
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Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, on May 1, 2018, discusses differences in charges against former Beta Theta Pi fraternity members being pursued by his office and those originally filed by former Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.

Three of 12 former Beta Theta Pi brothers appeared for a preliminary hearing Wednesday to answer to charges that were filed after deleted video footage was recovered by the FBI in November — but the hearing didn't exactly go as planned.

The preliminary hearing, in which nine of the defendants waived their appearances, started four-and-a-half hours after the 8:30 a.m. scheduled time because District Judge Carmine Prestia was sick with the flu. District Judge Steven Lachman eventually filled in and is scheduled preside over the rest of the hearing — but his presence was met with an objection due to his Penn State ties.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo cited an Oct. 27 motion when former District Attorney Stacey Parks Miller said Lachman should be ineligible for assignment to the case based on an appearance of impropriety.

"He identifies himself as closely aligned with Penn State and Penn State students," Parks Miller said in the motion, adding he was employed by the university for more than eight years.

Parks Miller added, "His campaign literature stated, 'I believe that first time offenders should be treated leniently, so that they have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes without dire consequence.'"

President Judge Pamela Ruest listened to Zarallo's objection, but ruled that Lachman would preside over the duration of the hearing because there was no guarantee Prestia would be able to preside Thursday.

Current District Attorney Bernie Cantorna requested the Office of the Attorney General prosecute the case because he also cited a conflict of interest. Tom Kline, attorney for the Piazza family, said he believes Cantorna recused himself because Cantorna had some sort of contact or had given advice to an unnamed defendant prior to taking office.

The basement video at the heart of the hearing showed 19-year-old pledge Timothy Piazza consuming 18 alcoholic drinks in 82 minutes at a bid acceptance event on Feb. 2, 2017, before falling multiple times and suffering fatal injuries at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.

The 12 defendants — Braxton Becker, Ryan Burke, Joseph Ems Jr., Michael Fernandez, Brian Gelb, Reginald Goeke, Patrick Jackson, Jonathan Kanzler, Joshua Kurczewski, Aidan O'Brien, Donald Prior and Bo Han Song — allegedly continued to haze Piazza in the basement, which Parks Miller said was a continuation of the hazing activity seen on video upstairs.

Five former brothers — Burke, O'Brien, Kanzler, Kurczewski and Song — were charged with a felony count of aggravated assault by Parks Miller, but Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro dropped the felony charges against the five brothers on Tuesday. He also dropped the first-degree involuntary manslaughter and second-degree simple assault charges.

Evelyn Piazza, Timothy Piazza's mother, was present Wednesday — although Jim Piazza, Timothy Piazza's father, was not.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Thursday.

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