Video Recovery, Alcohol Education The Focus As New Preliminary Hearing Begins For Former Beta Theta Pi Brothers
Seven former Beta Theta Pi brothers were back in court on Tuesday for another preliminary hearing in the Penn State fraternity hazing case stemming from the 2017 death of pledge Timothy Piazza.
It’s the fourth preliminary hearing overall to determine if charges will be held over for trial. For all but one of the defendants in court this week, it’s their third preliminary hearing.
The seven are among 22 still facing charges in the case. Two defendants pleaded guilty to hazing and alcohol charges earlier this summer.
For the new hearing, three defendants — Brendan Young, Daniel Casey, and Jonah Neuman — face charges of involuntary manslaughter, multiple counts of recklessly endangering another person and conspiracy to commit hazing. Young and Casey also face 29 counts each of hazing for activities over the course of two semesters.
Michael Bonatucci, Nicholas Kubera, and Joshua Kurczewski each face multiple counts of recklessly endangering another person, conspiracy to commit hazing, and furnishing alcohol. Braxton Becker is charged with tampering with evidence, obstructing administration of justice, and hindering prosecution.
All previously had those charges dismissed and then refiled and all but Becker have had other charges already bound over.
District Judge Carmine Prestia is presiding over the hearing and is the third magistrate to be involved in the case. District Judges Allen Sinclair and Steven Lachman oversaw previous hearings.
With a record well-established over the course of the three earlier hearings, prosecutors from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which took over the case in January, began Tuesday by calling new witnesses to expand upon some points that have been previously touched on.
First on the stand was Linda LaSalle, director of health promotion and wellness, who testified about the university’s Student Alcohol Feedback and Education (SAFE) program, which all incoming freshman are told is required before starting classes. She also confirmed that each of the defendant’s completed the program. Det. Craig Ripka has previously testified about the program but could not confirm that defendants had actually completed it.
Prosecutors have previously sought to counter defense arguments that fraternity brothers couldn’t have been expected to know the extent of Piazza’s condition or the danger he was in by pointing out that all Penn State students have had education in dangers of high-risk drinking and the signs of blackout and overdose.
As part of a bid acceptance night on Feb. 2, 2017, Piazza and 13 other pledges were put through “the gauntlet,” a series of drinking stations in which they were encouraged to quickly consume beer, wine and vodka. That was followed by a party where the pledges were repeatedly given alcohol by fraternity brothers.
Surveillance video showed Piazza was given 18 drinks in a period of 82 minutes and a medical examiner estimated Piazza’s blood alcohol concentration would have been between .27 and .35 at the time he fell head-first down the fraternity house’s basement stairs. Piazza also was seen swaying and stumbling before he fell.
Piazza died on Feb. 4, 2017 as a result of non-recoverable brain injuries, head trauma and massive internal bleeding.
Defense attorneys objected to LaSalle’s testimony, arguing that she was not called as an expert. Frank Fina, attorney for Young, said it was the “ultimate in peripheral, tangential evidence, and Jeffrey Veitch, attorney for Kurczewski, said it was “nothing but a Hail Mary.”
Steve Trialonas, attorney for Casey, said it would be “absurd” to contend the defendants were liable because they were registered as having taken an online course when drinking is not unusual at Penn State.
“By that rationale nearly every Penn State student would be liable for charges at some point,” Trialonas said.
Prestia allowed LaSalle’s testimony, and she explained that the program is designed to help students “make safer and healthier decisions.” The program includes lessons on factors that affect blood alcohol level, the effects and risks of binge drinking and drinking games, signs of blacking out and overdose, and to call for help when signs of trouble appear. It also explains the amnesty law for those who call for help for someone who has overdosed.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Andrew Notaristefano said the defendants “were warned of the specific dangers of the specific conduct they engaged in.”
Fina meanwhile pointed out that the program emphasizes individual responsibility and that the program may not reflect what students actually see at parties.
Several attorneys noted, though LaSalle could not confirm, that Piazza would have taken the SAFE program as well. LaSalle affirmed under questioning from Andrew Shubin, attorney for Kubera, that the program advises to stop drinking before impairment and to not be afraid to say no and walk away.
Trialonas said that the program is not about safely serving alcohol. He also said that the quiz at the end allows participants to get questions wrong repeatedly and be provided with the correct answers, so it is possible that someone could go through it “mindlessly” and not retain information.
In testimony specifically related to the charges against Becker, FBI forensic video analyst Jason Palek discussed the recovery of deleted video from the fraternity basement.
Becker was the fraternity’s house manager who assisted State College Police with obtaining the surveillance video on Feb. 6, 2017. He is accused of deleting video while police were in the room with him, and Ripka previously testified that a photo of Becker with his finger on a remote control button was taken at 10:39 a.m.
Palek testified on Tuesday that was the same time the DVR’s system log showed a “clear all data” command.
Responding to a question from Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari, Palek said that having analyzed hundreds of systems in his career, he has never encountered such a command in a system log as a result of a malfunction and that it is always initiated by the user.
Questioned by Becker’s attorney, Karen Muir, Palek said he could not point to an individual who deleted the video. He also said he did not know if the system at Beta Theta Pi was connected to the Internet, but said that if set up that way it could possibly be accessed remotely by someone not in the same room as the equipment.
On Tuesday afternoon, Senior Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo played video clips from the night of the initiation event. Lead investigator Det. David Scicchitano, who has testified at length in previous hearings, again described actions of each defendant throughout the bid acceptance night, leading pledges through the gauntlet or serving them alcohol. Not all are accused of providing alcohol directly to Piazza, and Becker does not face any charges related to providing alcohol.
The hearing will continue on Wednesday.
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