Motion For New District Judge In Beta Theta Pi Case Denied
by Geoff Rushton
It’s not yet known what direction a new prosecutor will look to take the case against former fraternity members charged in connection with the death of Timothy Piazza, but a judge has ruled against a motion by the last one.
Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest last week signed an order denying a motion by former District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller seeking different magisterial district judge to handle the preliminary hearing for refiled charges against Beta Theta Pi brothers.
Parks Miller lost her bid for reelection and her successor, Bernie Cantorna, referred the case to the Office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro, citing a conflict of interest. A spokesman for Shapiro said earlier this month that the OAG accepted the case and was conducting an independent review.
Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State student and Beta Theta Pi pledge, died in February 2017 after a pledge event at the now-banned Penn fraternity, where investigators say he was given 18 drinks in a period of 82 minutes as part of an alleged hazing ritual. He sustained fatal brain injuries after falling multiple times throughout the night.
Initial charges were brought in May 2017 against 18 members of the now-banned Penn State fraternity and a preliminary hearing took place over the course of the summer. At the conclusion, District Judge Allen Sinclair dismissed the most serious charges of aggravated assault against eight defendants, while other were bound over.
Parks Miller refiled those charges on Oct. 27 and requested a different district judge handle the new preliminary hearing, arguing that Sinclair committed an error of law in dismissing the charges.
In her ruling, Ruest wrote that the prosecution did not prove Sinclair had committed an error of law.
“… Sinclair heard extensive testimony over several days, received and considered written and oral arguments and made a well-reasoned decision,” Ruest wrote. “The Commonwealth failed to prove that Judge Sinclair made any error of law in finding the Commonwealth did not sustain its burden to establish a prima facie case on the dismissed charges. As such Judge Sinclair will continue to preside over these refiled charges.”
A date for the new preliminary hearing has not been set.
Parks Miller also asked for District Judge Steven Lachman to be removed from consideration from handling the hearing, claiming he “openly advocates for student defendants” and “openly criticizes police and prosecutors.” Ruest’s ruling on Sinclair rendered that issue moot, and it was denied.
A hearing on the motions was held in December, in Parks Miller’s absence, resulting in her issuing a scathing press release as the hearing was starting that criticized county and district judges and defense attorneys. It resulted in defense attorneys calling for Ruest to refer Parks Miller to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board.
In addition to the charges that were bound over in the summer and the refiled charges, additional charges were filed in November against 12 new defendants and five already facing charges after the recovery of video evidence from the basement of the fraternity house. A preliminary hearing on those charges initially was scheduled for December but was postponed and has not yet been rescheduled.
A total of 26 former members and the fraternity chapter now face a range of charges in the case.