BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A district judge may decide by the weekend whether prosecutors have presented enough evidence to hold a trial for former members of a now-closed Penn State fraternity charged in connection with a pledge’s death.
Before a preliminary hearing resumed for a seventh day on Thursday, District Judge Allen Sinclair told reporters he expected the arguments to wrap up later in the day, and he could rule on Friday whether charges should be forwarded to county court for trial.
Attorneys for 10 of the 17 defendants are still waiting to make their final arguments.
Early Thursday, defense attorney Michael Engle argued that “the voluntariness of the drinking” is an important factor when considering the death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey.
“What we have is evidence from this record that this tragic death was simply not foreseeable here,” said Engle, who represents defendant Gary DiBileo.
Former members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity face charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault to hazing and alcohol violations.
On Wednesday, defense lawyers asked Sinclair to dismiss some or all of the charges, arguing their clients didn’t act recklessly or maliciously during a night of drinking and hazing.
Lawyers for five of the eight fraternity brothers who face the most serious offenses attacked the prosecution’s case.
The lawyer for Brendan Young, who was chapter president the night in February when Piazza drank a dangerous amount and fell several times, argued Young saw nothing to make him think the pledge was at risk of dying.
“He wasn’t there through the whole night. He did not observe any injuries to Mr. Piazza. He did not observe anything that would lead him to believe that he was at substantial risk,” Young’s lawyer, Frank Fina, told Sinclair.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said Young was “in charge of the fraternity” and sent text messages afterward indicating he was responsible.
She said the defendants led Piazza to hazing and excessive speed drinking, aiming to see “how drunk they could get him in the shortest period possible.”
That behavior, she argued, meets state standards for criminal liability.
Security cameras showed Piazza spent an excruciating night in the fraternity after he was injured, most of it on a couch in the first-floor great hall, as members made half-hearted and even counterproductive efforts to help him.
Piazza was unconscious by the time he was discovered in the basement the next morning, and he was found to have suffered severe head and abdominal injuries. He later died at a hospital.
Wednesday’s hearing began with the final witness, a live-in adviser at the Beta Theta Pi house who said he did not see the alcohol hazing or other events leading to Piazza’s death.
Tim Bream, also the football team’s head athletic trainer, said he went to his room after watching the pledge ceremony and left for work the next morning without noticing Piazza.
“I, in no way, shape or form, would give permission to any type of alcohol abuse, gauntlet or anything like that,” said Bream, describing himself as a nondrinker. “Nor did I know about it that evening.”
A lawyer for the alumni corporation that owns the house argued to the judge that charges were not properly filed against the entity.
Parks Miller said, “The local chapter has been charged and they’re charged with a corporate theory of liability.”
Two other defendants have waived their preliminary hearing.