Video shows Penn State frat party on night of pledge death
The grand jury presentment released last month had described in detail the video of the drinking ritual the night before Tim Piazza died. But it was no match for the actual footage.
BELLEFONTE, Pa. — For the first time, prosecutors on Monday aired portions of the gruesome surveillance video from the Pennsylvania State University fraternity party at which, they say, members helped pledge Tim Piazza become dangerously drunk, then left him to die after he fell down a flight of stairs.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller offered the video in a bid to persuade Judge Allen Sinclair to hold members of Beta Theta Pi fraternity for trial on charges related to Piazza's Feb. 4 death. Lawyers for the fraternity members charged with manslaughter and other crimes had sought to block the video's introduction at the hearing, but Sinclair denied their requests.
After hearing the prosecution evidence into the evening, the judge late Monday granted a defense request to continue the proceeding, although he did not set a date. Defense lawyers said they want to cross-examine investigators and prepare their arguments, including that the district attorney overreached in the charges. They also asked that the video formally be introduced into evidence, which would make it publicly accessible.
The district attorney objected. "I don't want to make it public record so the press can play it on TV," Parks Miller said, though she said she would provide copies to defense attorneys. The judge did not rule on the request.
The hours of video that Parks Miller played in court, captured by 12 surveillance cameras installed in and around the Beta Theta Pi house, recorded the "bid night" on Feb. 2 when pledges were inducted, hazed, and forced to endure a gauntlet of drinking.
The grand jury presentment released last month had described the video in detail. But it was no match for the actual footage.
Among the excerpts aired on a small screen in the front of the courtroom was one showing pledges — including 19-year-old Piazza, dressed that night in a blazer, collared shirt, and tie — guzzling vodka at one station, then rushing to the next to consume a can of beer in a single swig.
Another clip showed four members carrying Piazza's limp body and putting him on a couch after he fell down the basement stairs. Over the next hours, members are shown slapping the sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, N.J., pouring liquid on him, sitting on his legs, rolling over the top of him, struggling to put a backpack on him — an apparent attempt to prevent him from choking on his vomit — and even throwing a shoe at him. And at one point, a member placed what appears to be an empty keg on or near him.
Prosecutors allege that some fraternity members wanted to call for help but were overruled by others. Nearly 12 hours passed before anyone called for an ambulance, the grand jury presentment said. Piazza suffered a non-recoverable brain injury, a ruptured spleen and a collapsed lung. He died a day later.
His death has brought another unflattering spotlight to Penn State and renewed national discussion on campus drinking and fraternity hazing. In its wake, Penn State permanently banned Beta Theta Pi and instituted new rules for the rest of the Greek system, with its 83 fraternities and sororities.
At one point Monday, prosecutors introduced a text message Piazza had received from another fraternity member before the event began that night. It read: "Get ready to get f***ed up and get ready for a long semester."
The surveillance video was aired without sound, just narrated at times by State College Police Detective Dave Scicchitano, whose testimony was guided by questions from the prosecutor.
Within 90 minutes of his first drink, Piazza's blood-alcohol level had soared to nearly four times the legal definition of drunken driving, the detective told the judge.
Evidence suggested that Piazza was entered into the drinking gantlet at the Beta Theta Pi house at 9:52 p.m. By 11:22 p.m., he said, the young man's blood-alcohol content was between 0.28 percent and 0.36 percent, and the fraternity brothers struggled to hold him up.
Hours into the night, the video showed Piazza — alone in the darkened main room of the fraternity house — standing up, stumbling and falling repeatedly. At one point, he rises to his knees and cradles his head in his hands. At another, he lies in a fetal position. No one helps. A bare-chested Piazza appears to be alone for hours as he writhes and rolls around on the floor.
"This young man is squirming around because he's in the worst pain of his life," Parks Miller told the judge.
By the next morning, when he had spent hours untouched after falling down a flight of stairs for the second time, Piazza "looked dead," Scicchitano testified. "He looked like a corpse."
As the hearing opened in a packed courtroom Monday, Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn, took front-row seats, along with their lawyer, Tom Kline.
Jim Piazza glared at Joseph Ems Jr., one of the fraternity brothers, when the detective identified him as the one who threw the shoe at Piazza and slapped him in the abdomen. Ems, of Philadelphia, who has been charged with reckless endangerment, kept looking straight ahead.
But the Piazzas left before the video began airing, and returned only when it was over. "What we saw today was horrific," Kline said after the proceedings.
Sixteen of the 18 defendants attended the proceeding — two waived their appearance — and, with their lawyers, filled four rows. One cried during a break; another appeared visibly upset at one point during the hours of video and testimony and dropped his head in his hands. Most sat stoically. A few smiled and laughed during breaks in the hearing.
After the proceeding, several defense lawyers said their clients were unfairly blamed for Piazza's death.
"It is clear from today's proceedings at least with respect to my client, factually and legally, the charges against Luke Visser are unfounded, unwarranted and unjustified," said Theodore Simon, a Philadelphia-based lawyer.
William J. Brennan, Ems' lawyer, disagreed that the video incriminated his client. "I feel Joey Ems is the dolphin in the tuna net," he said.
Another lawyer, Ambrose Leonard, who represents Joseph Sala, said: "We think they overcharged."
Visser and Sala are among eight fraternity members charged with felony aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter, as is the fraternity itself. Ten others are charged with lesser offenses, including hazing, recklessly endangering another person, furnishing alcohol to minors, and tampering with evidence.
Charged with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault are: Brendan Young, 21, of Malvern, fraternity president; Daniel Casey, 19, of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., pledge master; Nick Kubera, 19, of Downingtown; Gary DiBileo, 21, of Scranton; Visser, 19, of Encinitas, Calif.; Sala, 19, of Erie; Michael Bonatucci, 19, of Woodstock, Ga.; and Jonah Neuman, 19, of Nashville.