by Geoff Rushton
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller wasn’t in courtroom 1 of the county courthouse on Thursday, but she played a significant role in a hearing for motions related to the refiling of charges that were dismissed in September for former Beta Theta Pi members charged in connection with the death of Timothy Piazza.
As the hearing was beginning, Parks Miller — who said she had sought to have the hearing rescheduled or to attend by phone because she was out of town for required continuing legal education — issued a lengthy press release that sharply criticized county and district judges and defense attorneys over recent proceedings in the case.
“While this case may be unusual and novel in complexity and number of defendants, the court has an obligation to handle it properly and be fair to both sides,” Parks Miller’s press release stated. “To date, it has failed miserably.”
The press release took aim at Judge Pamela Ruest’s recent decisions to grant defense motions that have delayed the case and said that “it appears that the court has shirked responsibility in taking control of this complex case, dealing with it proactively, showing concern for the timely resolution of charges, and worst of all, respecting a victim’s bill of rights and simply being fair to the Commonwealth.”
Ruest presided over the hearing, which addressed defense attorney’s motions to have the refiled charges dismissed and the prosecution’s motion for a different magisterial district judge to be assigned for a preliminary hearing on those charges.
No decision was made Thursday on those motions.
After the press release was issued, Ruest gave copies to defense attorneys for the 11 defendants for whom charges were refiled and set aside time for them to address it.
Attorneys called for Ruest to refer Parks Miller to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board and described the press release as the latest example of unprofessional conduct by the DA during the case.
“We’ve unfortunately become conditioned to this kind of stuff,” said local attorney Ron McGlaughlin, who represents Parker Jax Yochim. “I’m astonished by this press release. I truly am… I quite frankly am dumbfounded as what to do with this. This behavior now, quite frankly I’m embarrassed right now that I practice criminal law in Centre County.”
“I have handled some big cases. I’ve handled some high-profile cases in my career. I have never seen anything like this,” said Frank Fina, a former deputy attorney general who was involved in the prosecution of the Jerry Sandusky case and now represents former fraternity president Brendan Young.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Osterberg represented the prosecution at the hearing and on the matter of the press release said only that Parks Miller’s position is that it was proper under professional rules of responsibility and requested it be addressed when she would be available to be in court. Ruest denied that motion.
McGlaughlin further called the press release “ramblings of an individual who has 23 days left in Centre County as district attorney,” and a “shot at the judiciary” that amounted to professional misconduct.
An initial preliminary hearing spanned the summer for 18 Beta Theta Pi brothers and the fraternity chapter in connection to the death of Piazza, who suffered fatal falls during an alcohol-fueled pledge event in February at the now-banned Penn State fraternity. District Judge Allen Sinclair on Sept. 1 bound over some charges and dismissed others, including counts of aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, simple assault and reckless endangerment against various defendants. Parks Miller vowed at the time that she would refile charges, saying it was a “no-brainer” to do so on the grounds that Sinclair had committed an error of law.
But defense attorneys pointed out Thursday that Parks Miller was to blame for how long the case has carried on, noting she waited nearly eight weeks before refiling charges without explanation.
“The defense did not set in motion any of this,” said attorney Pete Sala, representing Joe Sala. “She set this whole procedure in motion.”
Osterberg said the wait came because of the emergence of new evidence.
New charges in the case were filed in November against additional defendants after the recovery of deleted basement video footage, bringing the number facing charges related to Piazza’s death and its aftermath to 26. A preliminary hearing on those new charges originally scheduled for next week has been continued.
For the refiled charges, Parks Miller’s press release said that when she filed a motion for a new district judge to handle the preliminary hearing, she became concerned after Ruest signed an order giving the defense six weeks to respond. She said it appeared an attempt was being made to push the case into 2018, when she would no longer be district attorney, having lost her re-election bid to attorney Bernard Cantorna.
She says one defense attorney sent a letter to Sinclair requesting a continuance for the preliminary hearing on the refiled charges originally scheduled for Nov. 22 and Ruest subsequently issued an order continuing the preliminary hearing for all of the defendants without the prosecution’s input.
“When this happens, this means Tim Piazza and his family have had NO VOICE in these proceedings through the advocacy of the Commonwealth, and these motions have been decided upon ex parte, with the court only having only heard from the defendants,” Parks Miller’s press release said.
She added that after Cantorna issued a statement saying he would ask the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to take over the case because of a conflict of interest, defense attorneys sought and were granted within hours a motion to indefinitely extend the pretrial motion deadline. Parks Miller called that “untenable DA shopping.”
Attorney Ted Simon, representing Luke Visser, said the assertion that motions were granted without the prosecution having an opportunity to weigh in were not true, saying the DA’s office was served notice and was responsible for notifying the judge that it intended to respond.
Fina said it was “absurd.”
“A court decides its schedule,” he said. “A court has discretion on granting continuances.”
Parks Miller claimed the recent decisions called into question the county court’s respect for victims’ rights.
“The Court’s treatment of the Commonwealth raises serious questions about Centre County’s ability to respect the victim’s bill of rights and the handling of the Piazza matter to date,” the release said. “Centre County must continue to be under the microscope in this case, and others, to ensure fair proceedings moving forward.”
Fina said the release may have been “just an emotive temper tantrum,” but was also part of “a theme of a prosecutor employing outside influences to try to get … her way inside the courtroom. It’s contrary to the entire structure of the system.”
Parks Miller said Ruest ignored her request to reschedule the hearing and added more motions to it. She was also denied a request to participate by phone. She said that she has led the prosecution from the beginning and that, “There is no place where victims’ rights are valued where this is this acceptable.”
Defense attorneys questioned why Parks Miller couldn’t be in town. They said there is no requirement that she complete her continuing legal education credits on consecutive days and that they could have been completed before or after the hearing. Attorney Michael Engle, representing Gary DiBileo, listed all of the CLE credits offered in Bellefonte between now and the end of the year. Simon added that she would only have to pay an administrative fee to complete the credits next month.
The press release also was critical of Magisterial District Judge Steven Lachman. In requesting a new district judge for the preliminary hearing, Parks Miller has asked that Lachman be excluded. Her initial filing claimed that Lachman was formerly employed by and identifies closely with Penn State; “openly advocates for student defendants” “openly criticizes police and prosecutors,” and “campaigned for his current position on a platform of second chances and leniency for PSU student defendants.”
She said Thursday that when new charges were filed in November stemming from the recovered basement footage.
“Lachman unilaterally chose to refrain from proceeding on the new complaints by immediately scheduling preliminary arraignments to not ‘bother’ the new felony defendants over their Thanksgiving,” the release said. “He was so concerned about the defendants that he attempted to ‘withdraw’ warrants he was required by law to issue.”
Sala said that “lambasting Judge Lachman, who had nothing to do with this,” was a sign of “bad faith.”
The defense attorneys argued that if the refiled charges do proceed, they should either be remanded to Sinclair or Lachman should not be excluded from consideration for a preliminary hearing. McGlaughlin asked why the DA hasn’t asked for Lachman to be excluded from every criminal case if she had concerns about his impartiality.
They don’t believe it should get to that point of a new preliminary hearing at all, however.
Osterberg argued for the Commonwealth that Sinclair did not understand the prosecution’s theory and that decisions to bind over some charges and dismiss others were “incongruous.”
Defense attorneys, though, said the motion to refile alleges an error of law by Sinclair but gives no explanation as to what the error was.
While also laying out some of the arguments they made for their clients during the preliminary hearing, the defense attorneys said that just because it was an outcome the prosecution didn’t like did not mean it was an error of law.
Marc Neff, attorney for Michael Angelo Schiavone, said the prosecution presented voluminous evidence over the course of the preliminary hearing and Sinclair arrived at his decision not to bind over some charges.
“He doesn’t have to abide by their theory,” Neff said. “Maybe the commonwealth needs to reevaluate their theory rather than blame the magistrate.”