Attorney: Fine imposed on man convicted in Penn State hazing case was ‘excessive, irrational’

Former Beta Theta Pi member sentenced in Bellefonte

Former Penn State fraternity member Braxton Becker was sentenced Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019 in Bellefonte.
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Former Penn State fraternity member Braxton Becker was sentenced Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019 in Bellefonte.

The former house manager of a Penn State fraternity where a pledge repeatedly fell during a night of drinking and later died filed an appeal Tuesday seeking to vacate his conviction and fine.

Braxton Becker, 23, of New York, was found guilty in May of one misdemeanor count of hindering apprehension, but was acquitted of one misdemeanor count each of evidence tampering and obstruction.

Becker was accused of deleting the footage to thwart the State College police investigation in the days after Timothy Piazza died from severe head and abdominal injuries. Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo has argued Becker was the “gatekeeper of important information.”

For each of the three charges filed by State College police, ex-borough police Detective David Scicchitano used identical language — “(Becker) deleted surveillance video of an incident knowing a police investigation was underway” — in the criminal complaint.

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State College police detective David Scicchitano leaves the Centre County courthouse on May 3, 2018. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

The state attorney general’s office was required to prove Becker tampered with the video as a predicate offense to the hindering charge because tampering is a statutory element of hindering, defense lawyer Karen Muir wrote.

“Because the jury found Mr. Becker not guilty of the predicate offense, Mr. Becker’s conviction for hindering cannot stand,” Muir wrote.

Both Muir and state attorney general’s office spokeswoman Jacklin Rhoads declined to comment, citing an ongoing gag order in the case.

Centre County Judge Brian Marshall sentenced Becker in August to two years of probation, a $5,000 fine and 100 hours of community service. The fine was the maximum allowed by law.

During the hearing, he said he imposed the fine “because of the necessary expenditure of public resources to overcome the actions that Mr. Becker took in committing this crime.”

The fine was “excessive, irrational and unreasonable,” Muir wrote. She argued Becker was the one who had to expend additional resources to contest the charges after the state attorney general’s office and State College police refiled charges against Becker three times.

“There was absolutely no testimony, victim impact statement or request for reimbursement for costs for the ‘public resources’ presented at trial or sentencing in the matter,” Muir wrote. “... It appears as though Mr. Becker was punished for exercising his Constitutional right to a trial, as the individuals who plead(ed) guilty did not receive the maximum fine.”

The now-defunct Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at 220 N. Burrowes Road. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

Becker was the first former Beta Theta Pi fraternity brother to be convicted by a jury on charges that were filed after Piazza’s death in February 2017.

Piazza consumed a large quantity of alcohol during a big acceptance ceremony at the fraternity. His night was captured on the house’s security camera system, but footage from the basement was not initially provided to State College police.

The video was discovered in July 2017 when Scicchitano was in the now-defunct fraternity house for an unrelated investigation and realized there were security camera angles he had not seen before.

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.