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Judge Ponders Reinstated Charges In Penn State Frat Death Case

Gene J. Puskar
A bicyclist rides past Pennsylvania State University's shuttered Beta Theta Pi fraternity house Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.

A prosecutor Thursday used a press release to sharply criticize a judge hearing the case against former Penn State fraternity members charged in a pledge's drinking death. Defense attorneys accused her of violating rules of professional conduct.

"While this case may be unusual and novel in complexity and number of defendants, the court has an obligation to handle it properly and be fair to both sides," Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller wrote in a statement. "To date, it has failed miserably."

Parks Miller was not in the courtroom as her seven-page news release was sent out to reporters at the same time that Common Pleas Court Judge Pamela Ruest was presiding over a hearing on whether to reinstate serious charges in the case that have been dismissed.

Parks Miller said Ruest would not let her participate by phone from out of town.

Defense lawyers argued the release was highly inappropriate and their clients were harmed by it.

"This press release violates the rules of professional conduct six different ways from Sunday," defense attorney Michael Engle told the judge, asking her to raise the matter with the body that investigates lawyer misconduct.

Defense attorney Frank Fina said Parks Miller was engaged in a type of "public litigation" that compromised the defendants' rights.

"A prosecutor deploying outside influences to try and get his or her way inside the courtroom — it's inherently contrary to the entire structure of the system, the entire way it's supposed to be," Fina argued.

Ruest has to decide whether to let prosecutors pursue dismissed charges in the case, and if she should appoint a new magisterial district judge to handle those re-filed charges in the Feb. 4 death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey. She did not indicate Thursday when she will rule.

Twenty-six people currently face criminal charges related to Piazza's death, which occurred two days after he suffered a series of falls and consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol during a pledge bid night at the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Some fraternity members face charges that could result in prison terms, while others are accused of hazing and alcohol violations.

After an unusually hard-fought preliminary hearing, which lasted seven days over three months, District Judge Allen Sinclair on Sept. 1 threw out many of the charges, including the most serious allegations of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. The district attorney subsequently refiled many of those counts and sought a new judge.

Sinclair "simply did not understand the theory and made many incongruous rulings by binding over some charges and dismissing others," prosecutor Michael Osterberg argued to Ruest.

Defense attorneys told Ruest that Sinclair's decision did not amount to legal error, so the dismissed charges should not be revived.

"Just because you disagree with the judge's ruling doesn't give you a second bite," argued defense attorney Ted Simon.

Sinclair also ruled there was evidence to send other charges to for trial, and they are currently pending in county court.

On Nov. 13, Parks Miller announced the FBI had helped recover erased security camera footage from the fraternity basement, providing evidence that Piazza had been given at least 18 drinks over less than 90 minutes.

That led her to file entirely new charges. A preliminary hearing for those "basement tapes" charges, which had been scheduled for next week in Bellefonte, has been postponed.

Security camera footage documented how Piazza became visibly inebriated early in the evening, after which fraternity members made ineffective and even counterproductive efforts to help him. He had suffered a fractured skull, shattered spleen and other injuries.

Fraternity members found his unconscious body in the basement the next morning, but waited about 40 minutes before summoning help.

Parks Miller, defeated in the spring Democratic primary, leaves office at the end of this month. Her successor, Democrat Bernie Cantorna, has indicated he will ask the state attorney general's office to take over the prosecution.

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