Nearly two months after a judge gutted the groundbreaking case against eight Pennsylvania State University fraternity members accused of fatally hazing a pledge, the Centre County district attorney on Friday refiled the most serious charges and asked for the case to be heard by a new judge.
Stacy Parks Miller brought back involuntary manslaughter and felony aggravated assault charges against eight members of Beta Theta Pi in the February death of Tim Piazza, 19, a sophomore engineering major from New Jersey. She also refiled reckless endangerment and other charges against three other members of the fraternity.
The charges were among scores of counts dismissed in early September by Centre County Judge Allen Sinclair following a preliminary hearing that stretched over several months and at times morphed into a mini-trial. His ruling amounted to a bombshell in the case — and one that infuriated Piazza’s parents and seemed to validate defense claims that prosecutors overreached in bringing the charges.
Parks Miller had vowed at the time to refile the felony charges. She was not available for comment Friday — and two defense lawyers promised to fight her latest legal move. But in a news release announcing the step, she said an investigation was ongoing “around other outstanding matters and additional new charges may be forthcoming.”
In the 20-page motion, Parks Miller outlined what she said was her legal authority to reinstate the felony charges and seek a new judge.
She said she wasn’t required to specify the reasons, but the motion cited what she called “irreconcilable errors of law” by Sinclair, including that he unevenly applied the law when deciding which fraternity brothers to hold for trial on which charges. She also contends he failed to properly consider the evidence standard for a preliminary hearing, which doesn’t require prosecutors to prove their case at the same threshold as a trial.
And Parks Miller took the unusual step of specifically requesting that the case not be transferred to Steven Lachman, one of the county’s district judges, because of his ties to Penn State. She noted he was previously employed by the university and has referred to it as the “great pride” of his life.
A lawyer for Piazza’s parents welcomed news of the refiling.
“The Piazzas are pleased and gratified that the charges have been refiled by the prosecutor, and fully support her commitment to seeking complete justice for Tim,” said lawyer Thomas Kline.
The motion also took issue with the format of the hearing, which was held on seven days over three months. Parks Miller didn’t specify how long a new hearing would take, but asked that it be fast-tracked and continuous.
“The previous preliminary hearing and the truncated manner in which it was held did not serve justice for the victims or the case itself,” the motion contends.
But if and how quickly such a hearing could occur isn’t clear — and Parks Miller is racing a clock. She lost a primary bid for re-election in the spring and leaves office in January.
One of the defense lawyers, Leonard G. Ambrose III, called Friday’s motion a last-ditch effort by a prosecutor who was “literally run out of office and won’t be there at the end of the year.”
Ambrose, who represents Joe Sala, called the refiling “baseless.”
Piazza, prosecutors allege, was forced to consume large amounts of alcohol during a Feb. 2 hazing ritual, known as a drinking “gauntlet,” and later fell down the basement stairs. Prosecutors obtained video from the now-closed fraternity house that showed Piazza falling several other times. Fraternity members left him to languish on a couch and didn’t call for emergency help until almost 12 hours later.
Piazza died Feb. 4 of a head injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung.
Prosecutors argued that each fraternity member charged played a role in the death or tried to cover it up afterward. In an unusual twist, prosecutors at the hearing played clips from the video showing pledges, including Piazza, running from drinking station to drinking station, guzzling booze. Also captured was gruesome footage of a severely impaired Piazza, alone in the morning, struggling and falling on the floor.
Defense attorneys sought to minimize their clients’ roles and asserted that the fraternity members could not have known that Piazza’s life was in danger.
Sinclair let stand the less serious charges against 14 of the 18 fraternity members, including hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors.
Parks Miller reinstated involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, and other charges against Brendan Young of Malvern, president of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Penn State, and fellow fraternity members Daniel Casey of Ronkonkoma, N.Y, the pledge master; Jonah Neuman of Nashville; Nick Kubera of Downingtown; Michael Bonatucci of Woodstock, Ga.; Gary DiBileo of Scranton; Luke Visser of Encinitas, Calif.; and Sala, of Erie.
She also refiled reckless endangerment and two other alcohol-related charges against Michael Angelo Schiavone of Yardley and Lars Kenyon of Barrington, R.I., as well as a reckless endangerment charge against Parker Jax Yochim of Waterford.
Rocco C. Cipparone Jr., who represents Bonatucci, called the refiling “punitive” and said his client’s parents were disheartened by the news.
“Of course they’re frustrated, upset, disappointed, and concerned that we may have to go through process that we’ve already gone through in excruciating detail and at great expense to them” that was ruled upon by a district judge in a “clear-cut, rational decision supported by the law,” Cipparone said.
He said he intended to challenge Parks Miller’s request for a new judge. “I expect we’ll have a hearing before a judge on that,” he said.
Ambrose said his client’s parents were upbeat. “We will prevail,” he said.