BELLEFONTE, Pa. – Tensions erupted Thursday as the prosecutor pursuing a hazing death case against 18 Pennsylvania State University fraternity brothers lit into their family members during a key court hearing.
Responding to scoffs from the courtroom gallery as she urged a defense lawyer, mid-objection, to “show some respect,” Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller turned her back on Judge Allen Sinclair and began shouting toward the audience.
“How about the family cool it with the reactions?” she said. Then, she turned toward the charged members of Penn State’s chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and their lawyers, and yelled: “And I’ve had it with you, too.”
The exchange – a startling break with courtroom decorum — set the tone for a fractious day of questioning as lawyers for 16 of the men continued their fight to convince a judge to throw out the case.
Sinclair could rule as soon as Friday on whether to let the unusual prosecution – which has ignited debate over fraternity culture, hazing, and reckless college drinking — proceed to trial.
During four days of hearings over two months so far, the attorneys have sought to minimize their clients’ roles in a booze-fueled initiation ritual that led to 19-year-old pledge Timothy Piazza’s Feb. 4 death.
But Parks Miller has aggressively challenged them at every turn, earning nods of approval from Piazza’s parents seated in the gallery’s front row, while irritating defense lawyers, their clients, and their supporters with her pugnacious interruptions of the questioning.
“This whole thing is them trying to blame Mr. Piazza for his death,” she told the judge at one point, objecting to one defense lawyer’s cross-examination of a witness. “It’s not relevant. It’s not a defense to these crimes.”
Ted Simon, lawyer for Luke Visser — one of eight Beta Theta Pi members facing the most serious charges – stepped up to the defense table early Thursday to become Parks Miller’s latest sparring partner. And, like the lawyers who had come before him, tried to downplay his client’s role.
Visser, 19, of Encitas, Calif., didn’t live in the fraternity house and wasn’t there at the time Piazza sustained his fatal injuries during multiple drunken falls that night, Simon stressed in cross-examination of the case’s lead investigator, State College Police Detective David Scicchitano.
According to the presentment in the case, Visser ran a beer pong station for pledges earlier in the evening. Prosecutors say Visser and his fraternity let Piazza become dangerously drunk and injure himself, then left him despite knowing he needed medical attention — a series of events caught on harrowing security camera footage from the fraternity house that night
Two days after the party, Piazza died of a head injury, a ruptured spleen, and a collapsed lung.
Still, said Simon while questioning Scicchitano: “You have no evidence that my client ever intended to harm Mr. Piazza. And you certainly have no evidence that Mr. Visser intended to cause his death.”
Parks Miller shot back with an assertion of her own. “Everybody at that table,” she said, referring to the charged fraternity members, “contributed to the ultimate intoxication of Mr. Piazza and the other pledges that night.”
Lawyers for nine of the remaining 18 charged are still awaiting a chance to question the detective. Two Beta Theta Pi members have waived their right to the hearing.
Parks Miller has remained silent on whether she intends to call any other witnesses before concluding her case.
The fraternity members facing the most serious charges – involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault — are: Visser; Beta Theta Pi fraternity president Brendan Young, 21, of Malvern; pledge master Daniel Casey, 19, of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; Gary DiBileo, 21, of Scranton; Nick Kubera, 19, of Downingtown; Joe Sala, 19, of Erie; Michael Bonatucci, 19, of Woodstock, Ga.; and Jonah Neuman, 19, of Nashville.
Ten others face lesser charges, including hazing, recklessly endangering another person, furnishing alcohol to minors, and tampering with evidence.
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