Trial Date Set For Beta Theta Pi Case
A 2019 trial date has been set for former Beta Theta Pi members who were charged following the February 2017 death of fraternity pledge and Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza.
At a pre-trial conference on Tuesday in Bellefonte, Centre County Judge Jonathan Grine said the trial will begin on Feb. 6 and is expected to last until March 6. Jury selection is scheduled for Jan. 14-18.
Grine said the length of the trial and number of defendants would be a strain on the county’s comparatively limited judicial resources.
“To say this will be taxing on our resources would be an understatement,” Grine said.
Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest last week assigned Grine as trial judge for the case. Judge Brian Marshall will handle non-trial matters such as any potential plea agreements. To date, one defendant, Ryan Burke, has entered a guilty plea, to misdemeanor counts of hazing and liquor code violations. His sentencing is scheduled for July 31.
Grine also said a gag order would be issued for participants in the case.
A total of 24 defendants still face charges ranging from recklessly endangering another person to hazing to tampering with evidence to furnishing alcohol to minors. The complex case has played out for more than a year since initial charges were filed in May 2017 following a grand jury investigation. Since then there have been charges filed against a second set of defendants, three preliminary hearings, multiple refilings of dismissed charges and a change in prosecutors from the Centre County District Attorney’s Office to the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
Another preliminary hearing on refiled charges, including counts of involuntary manslaughter against five defendants, is scheduled for Aug. 21 before District Judge Carmine Prestia, the third district judge to oversee a hearing in the case.
A trial for some of the initial defendants in the case has been scheduled and rescheduled multiple times. The cases of those charged in May 2017 and those charged in November following the recovery of surveillance video have moved along separate paths. Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo did not indicate whether all 24 defendants would be consolidated ahead of trial, but the cases are at least moving toward similar calendars.
Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore from Lebanon, N.J., sustained fatal injuries after falling during an alcohol-fueled initiation event on Feb. 4, 2017 at Beta Theta Pi. Fraternity brothers waited nearly 12 hours after his fall down the basement stairs before calling for help. Piazza died on Feb. 6 as the result of brain trauma, head injuries and internal bleeding, according to a medical examiner.
Beta Theta Pi’s Penn State chapter has since been banned by the university and shut down by its national organization. The case spurred sweeping overhauls to fraternity and sorority oversight at Penn State and led to pending legislation, introduced by state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, to toughen criminal penalties for hazing.