Decision nears in Penn State frat-death case

Fraternity House Deadly Fall
The Piazza family with Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Lawyers for Pennsylvania State University fraternity members accused in the hazing death of a pledge on Thursday argued that prosecutors have failed to prove the most serious allegations, as a judge neared a decision on whether to order the defendants to stand trial.

But as closing arguments from lawyers for 16 fraternity members accused in the death of Tim Piazza, 19, concluded Thursday, Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller remained confident in her case.

“I’m happy that it’s finished,” she said, standing with Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn. “And I think they [the Piazzas] very much deserve an answer.”

Judge Allen Sinclair plans to rule at 11 a.m. Friday on whether the defendants, charged with varying offenses including aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, and hazing, will be bound over for trial. His decision will culminate a seven-day preliminary hearing that began in June and was continued three times.

Defense lawyers have sought to minimize their clients’ roles in the death of Piazza, a sophomore engineering major from Lebanon, N.J. They’ve argued that there’s no proof that their clients’ actions led to Piazza’s death following a booze-soaked pledge initiation party at the campus house for Beta Theta Pi.

Theodore Simon, who represents Luke Visser, charged with aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter, also alleged there’s no proof to distinguish how much alcohol Piazza consumed during a drinking “gauntlet” for fraternity members from the social event that followed, which he characterized as voluntary.

He also questioned how injured Piazza was after his fall down the basement steps the night of the Feb. 2 party, arguing that Piazza can be seen on a video, not shown by the prosecution, walking in the house the morning after the event. Piazza was found by fraternity members later that morning unconscious near a bar in the basement, Simon said. He later died of a head injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung,

“We don’t know if he drank down there,” Simon said. “We don’t know if he fell.”

Michael Engle, the attorney for Gary DiBileo, who also faces involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges, pointed out that evidence shows his client was one of three fraternity members overruled by the others after saying they wanted to call an ambulance for Piazza after he fell down the stairs.

“That is not someone who is acting recklessly with disregard for human life,” Engle said.

The other two were not charged.

If the charges stemmed from DiBileo’s running a wine station during the drinking gauntlet, Engle argued, there’s no proof Piazza ever drank from the wine bag.

Parks Miller struck back, arguing that every member charged contributed to Piazza’s death and that their roles are visible on an hours-long video the prosecution showed during the first day of the preliminary hearing.

“I think they forget,” she said of the lawyers, “we saw the crime on video.”

In response to Simon’s questions about when the fatal injury occurred, she pointed to testimony from a medical official who said “it’s entirely reasonable” to conclude that Piazza’s injuries were sustained in his fall down the basement steps.

She also became frustrated with the lengthy closing arguments made by some lawyers. Simon’s took 90 minutes.

“I feel like I’m in the middle of a trial,” she said. “This is a preliminary hearing.”

Rocco Cipparone Jr., who represents Michael Bonatucci, said he thinks he was able to show weaknesses in Parks Miller’s case and hopes the judge will dismiss key counts including aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and hazing.

“From their perspective, although it’s a different kind of suffering than the Piazza family is going through,  it’s still a lot of emotional and frankly financial suffering,” he said. “These are charges that expose him to a felony conviction, significant misdemeanor convictions, and jail time, and that never should have been lodged against him in the first place.”