New Witnesses From FBI, Penn State Testify In Hazing Case 4th Preliminary Hearing

Aug 21, 2018

Update: 5:20 p.m.

A fourth preliminary hearing is underway in the case of the hazing death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza. A Centre County district judge will hear the prosecution's case and decide whether to send seven defendants to trial with new charges including involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest granted the preliminary hearing in July, saying "the commonwealth in good faith has alleged improper dismissal by Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair." Sinclair presided over two of the preliminary hearings and twice threw out the most serious charges including involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.

Centre County judge Carmine Prestia is the presiding judge in this month's preliminary hearing.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Andrew Notaristefano called a new witness, Linda LaSalle, to the stand on Tuesday. LaSalle, director of Health Promotion and Wellness at Penn State and associate director of University Health Services, testified about Penn State's SAFE program, which provides alcohol education and is required for all incoming first-year students at Penn State.

LaSalle testified that the SAFE program, which stands for Student Alcohol Feedback and Education, is designed to help students learn about alcohol and help them "make better choices."

Prosecutors showed video clips and slides from the program, which includes teaching students how to calculate blood alcohol content and the potential consequences of drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. 

Throughout LaSalle's testimony, prosecution pointed out that all students, including the seven defendants in this preliminary hearing, were educated and "aware of the specific dangers that would result from the specific conducts they engaged in February 2017." 

The seven defendants included president of the now shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity, Brendan Young, its pledge master, Daniel Casey, and former brothers, Michael Bonatucci, Nicholas Kubera, Jonah Neuman, Braxton Becker and Joshua Kurczewski.

Sophomore pledge Timothy Piazza died in February 2017 from fatal injuries he suffered after falling down a flight of stairs in the fraternity house on bid acceptance night. Prosecutors say he was given 18 drinks in 82 minutes and that fraternity brothers didn't call 911 for 12 hours.

Notaristefano said Penn State's mandatory SAFE program proves defendants should know how to recognize the consequences of their own risky behaviors. He pointed to the portion of the program that says students should not hesitate to call 911. 

Defense attorney Frank Fina, who represents Young, argued that the program is directed at students and their own "individual responsibility" in reducing risk. He added that the message of program gets lost on the Penn State campus since drinking in social settings is prevalent.

At cross-examination, LaSalle said the office of attorney general didn't ask her to verify whether Piazza completed the SAFE program.

Additionally, the prosecution called another new witness, Jason Palek, who is a computer forensic examiner of the FBI, to testify on Tuesday afternoon.

Palek testified specifically to the alleged deletion of security footage in the basement of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. He combed through the DVR system logs and testified that there was a "clear all data" command manually entered into the system on February 6, 2017.

Defense attorney Karen Muir argued there was no way to ascertain who made that command. Her client, Braxton Becker, was the house manager of the fraternity and was charged with tampering, obstruction and hindering for allegedly deleting that video. Centre County Judge Steven Lachman dismissed those three charges in May.

Prosecutors continued with direct questioning of State College police detective David Scicchitano for the rest of the day. The hearing is expected to proceed on Wednesday.