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Judge Denies Prosecution Request To Delay Beta Theta Pi Hearing

by Geoff Rushton

Update: WJAC-TV reported on Monday afternoon that lead prosecutor Brian Zarallo plans to pursue involuntary manslaughter charges but would not seek to reinstate aggravated assault and simple assault charges.

Zarallo also plans to drop charges of hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors against the fraternity chapter corporation, according to WJAC.

Original story: A Centre County judge has denied a motion by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General to delay a preliminary hearing for former Beta Theta Pi members facing refiled charges in connection with the death of Timothy Piazza.

As it stands, the hearing for 11 of former brothers of the now-banned Penn State fraternity will begin on March 22 and is scheduled for six days. An order by President Judge Pamela Ruest scheduling the hearing was initially filed in February and soon after prosecutors requested a brief continuance.

Ruest denied that motion in an order dated March 6 and made available on Monday. No reason was given for the denial.

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.

The hearing beginning March 22 will again consider whether those charges should be held over for trial.

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.

In requesting the delay for the preliminary hearing, Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo cited several factors.

The attorney general’s office just took over the case in January and Zarallo wrote that a delay would help determine the prosecution’s final position on how to handle all of the pending charges against the 27 defendants. He said that it could be more efficient to consolidate the refiled charges and the new charges filed in November in a single preliminary hearing.

Zarallo also noted that it might be more reasonable to group certain defendants together, such as those facing involuntary manslaughter and assault charges, and hold separate hearings for others.

Additionally, Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn, have attended every hearing related to the case to date, but had already scheduled and paid for travel that conflicts with the hearing dates.

Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari, co-counsel for the Commonwealth, also is scheduled for a trial in Northumberland County beginning March 26.

In January, the attorney general’s office received 21 boxes related to the investigation and prosecution case and since then, Zarallo wrote, “considerable resources have been devoted to this matter,” reviewing thousands of documents and numerous hours of video evidence and recorded interviews.

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