BELLEFONTE, Pa. – Prosecutors on Friday launched their second bid to force 11 Pennsylvania State University fraternity members to stand trial for the 2017 booze-fueled death of sophomore pledge Tim Piazza, as a top state lawmaker unveiled a proposal to punish hazing with tough jail terms.
"We are here to make sure this never happens again," said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, announcing details of the Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law at the foot of the Centre County Courthouse during a break in the proceedings. Among other things, the bill would upgrade hazing resulting in injury from a summary offense – typically punishable with a fine – to a misdemeanor or felony carrying penalties of up to seven years in prison.
Corman, a Centre County Republican, was joined at the conference by Piazza's parents and Penn State president Eric Barron, whose staff helped craft the bill. The senator said he hopes to push it through the Senate next month.
Piazza, 19, a sophomore from Hunterdon County, New Jersey, died in February 2017 from injuries he suffered after drinking copious amounts of alcohol during a pledge ritual party at Beta Theta Pi. In a stupor, he fell down stairs and was left unattended for hours. His death days later and the subsequent charges have drawn national attention and led to a crackdown on Greek life at Penn State's flagship campus.
None of the defendants was in court Friday, as prosecutors sought for the second time in a year to persuade Centre County Judge Allen Sinclair to hold them for trial on charges that range from involuntary manslaughter to hazing.
Sinclair has set aside six days for the hearing, which could tread much of the same ground as last year's multiday proceeding. From the outset Friday, defense lawyers were angling to prevent that.
Brian Zarallo, a longtime Philadelphia assistant district attorney who joined the Attorney General's Office this year, told the judge that the prosecution would present a streamlined case, including about two hours of surveillance video from the State College house on the night Pizza suffered his fatal injuries.
Despite objections from the defense, Sinclair told him to proceed. "I'll make the decision if I've seen too much already," he said.
All of the testimony Friday morning came from forensic pathologist Harry Kamerow, who described Piazza's head and spleen injuries, which he said resulted from a fall while the young man was severely intoxicated.
Asked by prosecutors, the pathologist said Piazza would have had a better chance to survive if he had received medical attention sooner. But the doctor said he could not pinpoint how much sooner that should have been.
"He starts out with an eminently treatable injury if he gets medical intervention," Kamerow said, noting that Piazza's shattered spleen caused his stomach to fill with blood.
Defense lawyers questioned whether college students who had been drinking had the ability to detect that Piazza was severely injured.
Men age 19 or 20 "are not in a position to make a medical diagnosis of a spleen injury," argued Frank Fina, who is representing Brendan Young, fraternity president.
In the afternoon, State College Police Detective David Scicchitano testified about how deleted video footage from the fraternity house basement, on the night Piazza drank there, was recovered. He also reviewed text messages among fraternity members about prior parties and reviewed the layout of the Beta Theta Pi house. Prosecutors showed a series of pictures of the house, including a shot of the red-carpeted basement stairs that Piazza fell down the night of the party.
Scicchitano is expected to take the stand again when testimony resumes on Monday.
The hearing last summer culminated with a surprising Sept. 1 ruling by Sinclair to throw out the most serious felony charges against eight of the fraternity members and remove all charges against four others.
Then-Centre County Prosecutor Stacy Parks Miller refiled the charges in October and charged 12 additional members of the fraternity in Piazza's death after recovering footage from a basement video camera, for a total of 26. After she lost a bid for reelection, new Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna, citing a conflict of interest, asked the Attorney General's Office to take the case.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro declined this month to press aggravated-assault charges against the fraternity members, but charged five of them with involuntary manslaughter. In addition to the 11 facing the hearing Friday, three others previously waived their right to a preliminary hearing and were held for trial. The 12 others charged will face a preliminary hearing in May.
The Piazzas' relationship with Penn State has been strained since their son's death, but Jim Piazza, speaking at the news conference outside the courthouse, thanked Barron for his "unwavering support" of the hazing bill.
Under the legislation, hazing that results in serious bodily injury or death would be a third-degree felony, while hazing that leads to less serious bodily injury would be upgraded to a third-degree misdemeanor.