BELLEFONTE, Pa. (AP) — Lawyers for members of a now-closed Penn State fraternity asked a district judge Wednesday to dismiss some or all of the charges related to a pledge’s death, arguing their clients didn’t act recklessly or maliciously during a night of drinking and hazing.
The sixth day of a preliminary hearing wrapped up with attorneys for 11 of the 17 defendants still waiting to make final arguments before a judge will decide whether to send charges to county court for trial.
Lawyers for five of the eight fraternity brothers who face the most serious offenses, including involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, attacked the prosecution’s case in hopes District Judge Allen Sinclair would at least pare down the hundreds of charges they collectively face.
The lawyer for Brendan Young, who was chapter president the night in February that 19-year-old Tim Piazza drank a dangerous amount and fell several times, argued Young saw nothing to make him think the pledge was at risk of dying.
“He wasn’t there through the whole night. He did not observe any injuries to Mr. Piazza. He did not observe anything that would lead him to believe that he was at substantial risk,” Young’s lawyer, Frank Fina, told Sinclair.
Fina said Young’s entire exposure to Piazza’s drinking lasted only 12 seconds, and there are unanswered questions about how much Piazza drank and how he obtained it.
“We can’t say at what point his tragic injuries were fatal that night,” Fina argued. “And we can’t identify all of the intervening events and the unknowns that contributed or even caused some of Mr. Piazza’s injuries.”
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said Young was “in charge of the fraternity” and sent text messages afterward indicating he was responsible.
She said the defendants led Piazza to hazing and excessive speed drinking, aiming to see “how drunk they could get him in the shortest period possible.”
That behavior, she argued, meets state standards for criminal liability.
“They knew that death was a potentially serious consequence,” Parks Miller said. “They proceeded in the face of it anyhow. That is recklessness.”
Andy Shubin was among the lawyers objecting to Parks Miller’s references to the defendants as a group. Eight face involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and other charges, while six face only a single count of evidence tampering or reckless endangerment.
“You don’t get around facts by saying ‘they,’ ‘them,’” Shubin said, arguing the prosecutor’s practice of pointing at the cramped defense side of the courtroom meant “everybody is involved.”
Security cameras showed Piazza spent an excruciating night in the fraternity after he was injured, most of it on a couch in the first-floor great hall, as members made half-hearted and even counterproductive efforts to help him.
Piazza was unconscious by the time he was discovered in the Beta Theta Pi basement the next morning, and he was found to have suffered severe head and abdominal injuries. He later died at a hospital.
Parks Miller told the judge that even those with minor roles contributed to the death of Piazza, a sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, New Jersey.
“Nowhere do we have to prove to you that they specifically knew before they started this that he was specifically going to die or specifically going to be seriously injured,” Parks Miller argued.
The hearing began with the final witness, a live-in adviser at the Beta Theta Pi house who said he did not see the alcohol hazing or other events leading to Piazza’s death.
Tim Bream, also the football team’s head athletic trainer, said he went to his room after watching the pledge ceremony and left for work the next morning without noticing Piazza.
“I in no way, shape or form would give permission to any type of alcohol abuse, gauntlet, or anything like that,” said Bream, describing himself as a nondrinker. “Nor did I know about it that evening.”
A lawyer for the alumni corporation that owns the house argued to the judge that charges were not properly filed against the entity, when they were aimed at the fraternity chapter that was run by the active members, college students.
Parks Miller said she “the local chapter has been charged and they’re charged with a corporate theory of liability.”
Two other defendants have waived their preliminary hearing.