Luke Visser arrives for the preliminary hearing in June.
Chris Knight / AP
Defense lawyers for 16 members of Penn State University's Beta Theta Pi chapter charged in 19-year-old Tim Piazza’s hazing death have sought to shift the blame to a live-in adviser who was present in the fraternity house during the alcohol-fueled bid acceptance night that led to Piazza’s death in February.
During a preliminary hearing on Friday, the accused fraternity brothers’ lawyers sought to compel testimony from 58-year-old Tim Bream, Penn State football's head athletic trainer and the oldest person present in the house the night that Piazza suffered a series of fatal falls after being made to consume excessive alcohol during a hazing ritual.
Bream has not been charged in the case.
However, Bream did not show up at the Centre County Court in Bellefonte on Friday after failed attempts by the brothers’ attorneys to subpoena him, prompting Judge Allen Sinclair to schedule a contempt of court hearing for Bream on Aug. 30.
Bream’s absence brought to halt the preliminary hearing for 16 brothers and the fraternity chapter, who are facing more than 850 charges for Piazza’s death in February. Two other brothers who have been charged have waived the preliminary hearing.
Eight of them face serious charges of aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter, while the rest face charges ranging from reckless endangerment and hazing, to furnishing alcohol to minors and tampering with or fabricating evidence.
Owing to the large number of defendants in the case and the volume of charges against them, the preliminary hearing was spread over five days in the span of three months. Judge Sinclair, who has presided over the tense and often volatile proceedings since June, will decide if the brothers will go on trial after closing arguments scheduled for Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.
Through the course of the hearings, lawyers for the accused have questioned why Bream — who they claim may have had knowledge of, and may have approved of the booze-fueled bid acceptance night — has not been held responsible for Piazza’s death.
Ambrose said that the accused fraternity brothers “operated under the assumption that this was condoned behavior.”
Penn State athletic trainer Tim Bream (right)
Mark Wallheiser / AP
On Friday, the prosecution rested its case after the testimony of its sole witness, State College Police Detective Dave Scicchitano.
In previous hearings starting in June, Scicchitano testified that on the night of Feb. 2, Piazza suffered a series of falls after he was made to consume four to five drinks within a few minutes at a series of drinking stations, referred to as the “gauntlet,” during the Beta Theta Pi pledging ceremony.
Video surveillance taken from the fraternity that played in June’s hearing showed that between the falls, Piazza spent much of the night in pain on a couch, where some of the brothers tied him with a backpack, sat on his legs, dumped liquid on his face, threw shoes at his head, and struck him on his injured abdomen.
Prosecutors, led by Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, said that the brothers waited 12 hours to call for medical help after Piazza first fell down a flight of steps, and then attempted to cover up their role in his death by deleting their online exchanges and clearing evidence of alcohol consumption at the fraternity house.
Bream was aware of the bid acceptance night and had watched from a balcony as the brothers led the pledges to the “gauntlet,” Scicchitano testified during cross examination on Thursday.
One defense attorney suggested that Bream might have “personally approved of the gauntlet.”
Scicchitano also testified that during an interview, Bream told him that he went back to his room in the fraternity house after the bid acceptance ceremony at the start of the night and that he “doesn’t know anything else” that happened.
“And you didn't believe him, did you?” Ambrose said, before DA Parks Miller objected to the question, saying that Bream’s role was not relevant as he was not charged in the case.
“If you have evidence the he had a bigger role, we're all ears,” Parks Miller said. “Until then, this case is not about Mr. Bream.”
However, defense attorneys continued to exhibit disbelief that Bream, who lived on the second floor of the fraternity house, could have remained oblivious to the booze-fueled and boisterous events of the night.
“This is the highest-ranking person in the house,” Ambrose said, questioning how Bream could plead ignorance about alcohol consumption at the fraternity during several other social events.
Attorneys for other brothers said that their clients would have expected Bream to be supervising pledge activities since he was the adult and their clients were “adolescents.”
DA Parks Miller objected to the defense attorneys' characterization of their clients as “adolescents” saying, “It’s just a ploy to say, ‘These guys are too young to be held criminally responsible and Mr. 58-year-old should be responsible.”
Lawyers for the accused also pointed to evidence of text messages between some of the fraternity brothers which suggested that Bream had directed them to the delete GroupMe messages about the events of the night to prevent anyone from leaking screenshots to the media.
“Tim was thinking of a way to carry out the cover-up and prevent people from viewing the texts,” Ambrose said, according to Philly.com.
Scicchitano on Thursday also revealed an ongoing investigation into whether video footage from the fraternity’s basement — an area where key events of the night took place — had been deleted.
He testified that one of the 18 accused brothers had deleted the footage two days after Piazza's death, the Daily Collegian reported.
Piazza had his first drink in the basement where two of the “gauntlet” stations were placed. He eventually died of a traumatic brain injury caused by falling down 14 steps leading to the basement and subsequent other falls through the night.
The basement was where he lay, drunk and severely bruised sometime in the course of the night.
After his death, the chapter’s president texted another brother, “Make sure the pledges clean the basement and get rid of any evidence of alcohol.”
There were surveillance cameras in the basement, but until last week investigators believed that they weren’t working and that there was no video footage of what happened there.
Parks Miller said that there could be additional charges following the investigation into the deleted footage.
She suggested that the footage would not have been deleted “unless it shows culpability toward some crime.”
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