Prosecutors in the criminal case against a Penn State fraternity and 18 of its members related to the death of a pledge after an alcohol-fueled hazing ceremony played new video footage on Thursday of the pledge in the hours before help was summoned, and the lead detective revealed that critical security video may have been intentionally erased.
The preliminary hearing wrapped up its fourth day as cross-examination of State College police Detective Dave Scicchitano continued, and it was not clear whether the marathon proceeding will wrap up on Friday.
A judge has to decide if there is sufficient evidence against now-closed Beta Theta Pi and 16 of its members to send their cases to county court for trial. Two defendants previously waived the hearing.
The new footage showed Tim Piazza, 19, of Lebanon, New Jersey, stumbling and unsteady on his feet about three hours before he was found unconscious in the basement.
The four-minute excerpt was played by prosecutors to illustrate his medical condition before he died at a hospital. A shirtless Piazza was able to walk to close a door but then fell into the curtains. He had trouble keeping his pants up and then collapsed into a large chair in the Beta Theta Pi house's great room.
Members of the fraternity later realized Piazza was missing and found him in the basement, where no video has been recovered. Scicchitano testified that he now suspects the basement video was purposely erased, and charges may result. He said the suspect was one of the defendants, but did not name him.
The basement footage could show what happened between the pledge ceremony, when Piazza did not appear intoxicated, and about two hours later, following drinking that occurred in the basement. It also could show what happened early the next morning, when he ended up in the basement unconscious.
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Piazza's friends waited some 40 minutes that morning to call for help, and medical experts have said he had suffered severe head and abdominal injuries. He died the next day, Feb. 4.
The charges for some include involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. Others face less serious charges that include hazing, reckless endangerment and alcohol offenses. For some, the charges relate to the role they played in the hazing event, including supplying vodka, beer and wine. Five defendants are accused only of evidence tampering,
Cameras captured Piazza, a sophomore engineering student, falling several times during the night of drinking, and an autopsy indicated he had consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol. Security camera footage inside the house recorded the response of fraternity leaders and other members as they dealt with the injured and intoxicated student with a series of ineffectual and even counterproductive efforts.
Excerpts from the footage, narrated by the lead detective during a previous court session, showed fraternity members holding down Piazza, strapping him to a loaded backpack to keep him from turning over and choking, pouring liquids on him and trying to get him to stand so they could dress him, even though he appeared to be unconscious.
Piazza was left on a first-floor couch overnight, in palpable agony. He made several clumsy attempts to get up but fell repeatedly and in some cases landed on his head.
Defense attorneys have challenged Scicchitano about his investigation, zeroing in on what the video shows about their particular clients and asking him about how much hazing pressure Piazza would have felt.
On Thursday, the lawyer for defendant Luke Visser asked Scicchitano if he has looked into reports that two members of a visiting sorority may have been at the top of the basement stairs at the time of Piazza's initial fall. Scicchitano said he had and he urged the women to come forward.
"I would like to go after them if I knew where to look," Scicchitano said. "They're not wearing name badges."
Testy and sometimes bitter exchanges between Visser defense attorney Ted Simon and Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller caused District Judge Allen Sinclair to admonish them about "their back and forth — who's lying and who's not lying."