Centre County DA: Court Has ‘Failed Miserably’ In Handling Beta Theta Pi Case
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller issued a lengthy press release this morning outlining recent proceedings in the Beta Theta Pi case surrounding student Tim Piazza’s February death. In the release, she said 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.”
Much of the release deals with recent motions Magisterial District Judge Lachman has approved to extend the timeline of the case. Parks Miller says the Commonwealth was never consulted or even notified before these motions were approved, and that approved requests to extend the defendants’ response period to appointing another judge “all but ensured the new charges would not reach preliminary hearing stage” before the end of Parks Miller’s term. The release claims the court ignored raised objection to the extended response period and the request to reschedule a hearing when Parks Miller would be out of the state.
Parks Miller said the court “unilaterally” scheduled the hearing when she was to be out of the state for “required continuing legal education.” In the press release, Parks Miller said she is “virtually never unavailable” but is required to complete this credit before December 30 to keep her active law license.
As such, Parks Miller requested to appear and argue at the hearing by telephone, as she has been involved in the case from the beginning and knows every aspect of it; she would ensure an assistant district attorney was
present at the hearings in case of technical malfunction. The request to appear by telephone was denied, and three more motions filed by the Commonwealth in the case were then added to this time and date when Parks Miller would not be available, which is Thursday, December 7.
Parks Miller says Judge Palmela Ruest also granted a request for continuance on preliminary hearings for the refiled charges in the case without notifying the Commonwealth or giving her office the opportunity to respond.
“When this happens, this means Tim Piazza and his family have had NO VOICE in these proceedings through the advocacy of the Commonwealth…” the press release says, adding all of the defendants’ cases were continued based on the request from one defendant’s lawyer, and Parks Miller found out after the fact.
District Attorney-elect Bernie Cantorna, who defeated Parks Miller in the May primary election, has already requested the Pennsylvania Attorney General take over prosecution of the case in his place, citing a reported conflict of interest. The Attorney General’s office said it will review the claims, but no decision has been made to date. Parks Miller said Cantorna was asked not to make any public statements about his intentions for moving forward with the case, and that he has not publicly represented any of the defendants in the case.
Since Cantorna’s announcement of his alleged conflict, defense attorneys have filed motions to continue preliminary hearings into 2018 in apparent hopes the Attorney General “will not pursue total justice for Tim,” according to Parks Miller’s press release. Ruest granted the continuance of the preliminary hearing on all of the new charges for all of the defendants, and Parks Miller says she did so again without consulting the Commonwealth, the Piazzas or law enforcement.
“Without question, this decision wrested the presentation of the preliminary hearings of the new charges from the sitting DA, an aggressive prosecutor who knows the case 110%,” the press release says. It goes on to say the above is “untenable DA shopping and raises serious questions about the handling of this matter.”
Parks Miller has also filed a supplement to her motion to recuse Magisterial District Judge Steven Lachman from hearing the refiled preliminary hearings. She says Lachman is “prejudicial to the Commonwealth” and biased toward the defendants, as he inexplicably delayed preliminary arraignments for 15 days, until after Thanksgiving.
Lachman reached out to Detective David Scicchitano, the lead investigator on the case, and tried to illegally cancel the arrest warrants, Parks Miller says. “I could picture a defendant being pulled over for speeding during Thanksgiving Break and then be arrested on these charges,” Lachman wrote in an email to Schicchitano on November 15. She says she told Lachman he had created the entire problem by scheduling “an extra-long unprecedented time period” between a felony arrest and arraignment.
“I need not remind you that a boy is DEAD, and you seem to care more about not disrupting the Thanksgiving vacation of those whom the Commonwealth considers responsible for that death,” Parks Miller wrote in an email to Lachman on November 16, the day after his message to Schicchitano.
Parks Miller also says Lachman refused to accept one of Schicchitano’s criminal complaints “because he did not believe the complaint reflected the ‘intention’ of the legislature.” Lachman reportedly instructed Scicchitano to remove one count of furnishing alcohol to a minor because the two counts occurred so close in time, but Scicchitano and the Commonwealth refused. A Writ of Certiorari was filed to compel Lachman to follow the correct procedure, which reveals the criminal complaint refers to Nick Kubera, who Parks Miller says gave Piazza “two separate and distinct drinks at two separate, consecutive times” as shown on video.
Student Tim Piazza died in February from injuries he sustained after falling down the basement steps during a night of hazing and drinking at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. Following a grand jury investigation into what happened the night of Beta Theta Pi’s bid acceptance, 18 former members of the fraternity and the chapter itself were charged.
Preliminary hearings that spanned most of the summer resulted in Lachman ultimately dismissing all felony charges in the case. However, Parks Miller pledged to refile the dismissed felony charges, and later followed through on her word to do so.
During the preliminary hearings of the original charges, Schicchitano revealed police had discovered footage from the basement of the fraternity house, which presumably showed further evidence, was deleted. The State College Police ultimately turned over the tapes and equipment to the FBI, which was able to recover the deleted footage.
Based on what was shown on the recovered surveillance footage, Parks Miller filed charges against 12 new defendants in the case and filed additional charges against five previous defendants in the case, including five additional involuntary manslaughter charges. A total of 26 individuals and the chapter are now facing charges 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,” the press release from Parks Miller says. “To date, it has failed miserably. 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. Centre County must continue to be under the microscope in this case, and others, to ensure fair proceedings moving forward.”