by Geoff Rushton
Some of the former members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity charged in connection with the death of Timothy Piazza are scheduled to be back in Centre County Court next month for a preliminary hearing on refiled charges.
A six-day hearing is set to begin on March 22 for 11 brothers of the now-banned fraternity.
Following a preliminary hearing that took place of the course of last summer, District Judge Allen Sinclair bound over some of the charges against 18 members and the fraternity chapter, but dismissed the most serious charges, including felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, along with others.
In October, former District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller refiled a number of those charges, including assault and manslaughter charges against eight of the defendants, as well as other counts, including recklessly endangering another person and some of the hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors charges that Sinclair had initially dismissed.
Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State sophomore from Lebanon, N.J., died on Feb. 4, 2017 from brain trauma and internal bleeding sustained at a bid acceptance event at Beta Theta Pi. Investigators said fraternity members gave him 18 alcoholic drinks in 82 minutes as part of an alleged hazing ritual and he suffered multiple falls throughout the night. Paramedics were not called until nearly 12 hours after Piazza fell the first time, head-first down the basement stairs.
Additional charges were filed in November against 12 new defendants and five already facing charges after video from the fraternity basement was recovered and yielded new evidence. A preliminary hearing has not yet been scheduled on the new charges, and a trial date has not been set for the charges bound over by Sinclair in September.
In total, 27 defendants are now charged in the case.
Parks Miller lost her re-election bid and new District Attorney Bernie Cantorna, citing an unspecified conflict of interest, turned the case over to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office.
The possibility remains that the preliminary hearing in March may not proceed as scheduled. The new prosecutors could still decide to drop charges or work out pleas. Joe Grace, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, told the Associated Press that the case is still under review.
“We’re not ready as yet to give any kind of public update on this case,” he said.
Attorney Michael Engle, who represents Gary DiBileo, one of the members facing refiled charges, told the AP that defense attorneys have not heard from the attorney general’s office.
If the hearing does proceed, Sinclair will once again decide if there is enough evidence for the charges to be bound over for trial. When the charges were refiled, Parks Miller also filed a motion seeking to have another district judge preside, arguing Sinclair committed an error of law in dismissing the charges.
That motion was rejected in January by Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest.
“… Sinclair heard extensive testimony over several days, received and considered written and oral arguments and made a well-reasoned decision,” Ruest wrote in her decision. “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.”