BELLEFONTE, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania judge on Wednesday began to examine security footage from a booze-soaked Penn State fraternity party from the night a pledge was fatally injured to determine whether there is enough evidence for prosecutors to continue pursuing criminal charges against 12 fraternity members.
The first day of a preliminary hearing for the second set of Beta Theta Pi brothers to face charges ended inconclusively, and authorities said the proceeding may wrap up by week’s end.
Judge Steven Lachman has to determine if there is sufficient evidence to support the hazing, reckless endangerment, conspiracy and alcohol offense allegations that defendants face.
The 12 frat brothers are accused of crimes related to the February 2017 death of 19-year-old pledge Tim Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey.
Piazza suffered a fractured skull and severe abdominal bleeding the night of a pledge bid acceptance ceremony.
The house’s security cameras recorded him being carried to a couch after falling down the basement stairs, the ineffective measures some took to address his condition, the night he spent in palpable discomfort and the 40 minutes brothers waited to summon help the next day after finding him unconscious.
State College Police Detective David Scicchitano has been narrating the video, just as he did for a prior parallel preliminary hearing for 14 other defendants also accused in the case.
The footage included pledges being rushed through drinking stations, as well as a beer pong event on a dance floor while strobe lights painted the room in bright flashing colors.
Defense attorneys argued some of the footage did not directly relate to the allegations and that at times Scicchitano was describing events that were difficult to actually make out on the video.
Scicchitano also talked the judge through compilations drawn from the various video cameras that focused on the actions of individual defendants, showing their actions related to their particular allegations. That process is expected to resume Thursday.
Just three of the 12 defendants attended the hearing — the others were not required to attend.
The fraternity brothers involved in this week’s hearing were charged in November after the FBI recovered apparently deleted footage from the fraternity basement, where Piazza was found the morning after the party.
Eleven of them are accused of hazing and a variety of alcohol-related allegations, and five are charged with reckless endangerment.
The 12th defendant, 21-year-old Braxton Becker of Niskayuna, New York, is accused of evidence tampering, obstruction and hindering apprehension. He is accused of deleting the footage the FBI recovered.
Investigators said the recordings showed Piazza had been given at least 18 drinks in 90 minutes. The fraternity has been shut down.
The detective said in the arrest affidavit that hazing began with a fraternity member handing the pledges a bottle of vodka that was passed among them three times in five minutes.
Hazing activity that night, Scicchitano wrote, included “an obstacle course of drinking stations in which the pledges had to drink vodka fast, then shotgun a can of beer fast, and then chug from a winebag, and then drink a cup of beer if they missed a ping pong ball throw into the cup, and brothers taking alcohol up to pledges and having them chug.”
On the stand, the detective described events on video for the judge, making identifications and narrating events as the evening evolved from the bid acceptance ceremony to instances of alleged hazing to a party attended by a sorority.
On Tuesday, the state attorney general’s office announced it was dropping the most serious allegations of involuntary manslaughter and assault, charges that five of the 12 had faced.
Separately, 14 other fraternity members are awaiting trial after some charges against them were previously forwarded to common pleas court for trial after a pair of marathon preliminary hearings before a different judge in the same courthouse.