BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Lawyers for the Pennsylvania State University fraternity members charged in the hazing death of a pledge grilled the case's lead detective Tuesday as tensions rose between the defense and prosecution.
During the third day of a preliminary hearing that will determine if the men are held for trial, one lawyer asked Judge Allen Sinclair to sanction Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller after she referred to the defense as a "peanut gallery."
The verbal battle erupted after Parks Miller pushed back on defense lawyers' request to play portions of the surveillance footage from Beta Theta Pi fraternity house during the hazing ritual that prosecutors say led to sophomore Tim Piazza's death Feb. 4.
Prosecutors had used hours of that surveillance video when the hearing opened last month; lawyers for the fraternity and 16 of its members argued that they should be able to use it as they seek to challenge the charges in the case. Sinclair agreed but warned both sides to move on. "I'm tired of the bickering back and forth," he said.
After hours of cross-examination by defense lawyers, the judge recessed the hearing late in the day with plans to resume it, likely next month.
By the end of the day, attorneys for six of the eight defendants charged with the most serious offenses — including involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault — had tried to use their cross-examination of detective Dave Scicchitano to raise questions about their clients' culpability in Piazza's death.
Prosecutors say the fraternity members let the 19-year-old from Lebanon, N.J., become dangerously drunk at a party after an induction ceremony, injure himself in a series of falls, and then left him to die despite knowing he needed medical attention. Eight are charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault; 10 others face lesser charges, including hazing.
Defense attorneys have indicated they believe that the scope of the charges are a reach and that the district attorney failed to consider others who may be accountable.
All sought to minimize their client's role by showing that they weren't involved in buying the alcohol served that night, left the house before Piazza's first fall, or were not officers of the fraternity.
Andrew Shubin, who represents Nick Kubera, emphasized that the prosecution offered evidence only that his client handed beers to pledges to guzzle during the "gantlet," a drinking obstacle course.
Parks Miller was unimpressed.
"He aided and abetted the whole obstacle course," she argued.
One defendant, Michael Bonatucci, allegedly carried a case of beer into the house the night of the pledge party and handed beers to pledges, though not Piazza to "shotgun." His lawyer, Rocco Cipparone Jr., noted during questioning Tuesday that there's no evidence Bonatucci was even present during the time that members tried to tend to Piazza after his fall, or slapped him and poured liquid on him.
Cipparone, a Haddon Heights lawyer, said he understood the surveillance video shows his client leaving the fraternity house 14 minutes before Piazza fell. Later he said that he felt confident his 19-year-old client would not be held for trial and that he always believed Parks Miller had overcharged.
"I believe it even more now after the cross-examination," Cipparone said. "I feel confident and I hope [Bonatucci and his family] do, too."
After the hearing concluded for the day, Parks Miller scoffed at such a claim.
"Not at all," she said. "This was an out-of-control, reckless tradition where the ante upped and upped every semester."
Earlier in the hearing, under questioning from Steven Trialonas, the lawyer for pledge master Daniel Casey, Scicchitano said the Feb. 2 "gantlet" hazing ritual — which included chugging beer, wine, and vodka in a short period of time — put all participants at risk of life-threatening injuries.
"It was so grossly negligent and so reckless," the detective said.
Scicchitano acknowledged that Piazza was the only pledge in the fraternity's history to suffer serious bodily injury from the obstacle-course-style drinking.
Defense lawyers continued to question how much alcohol Piazza consumed during the gantlet and how much he drank during a subsequent social event.
"This is the most critical part of this case," argued Theodore Simon, who represents fraternity member Luke Visser, asserting that drinking at the social was voluntary.
Prosecutors have said Piazza's blood-alcohol level at one point that night rose to between 0.28 percent and 0.36 percent — more than four times the legal limit for drivers. Parks Miller said it was not relevant when the drinking occurred.
"There's no distinction" between the gantlet and the social, Parks Miller countered. "The drinking is one big event."