November 21, 2017

Centre County D.A.-elect sends Penn State hazing case to Pa. attorney general

Investigations Courts
Timothy Piazza With Parents Patrick Carns/AP

This Oct. 31, 2014, file photo shows Timothy Piazza, center, with his parents Evelyn Piazza, left, and James Piazza, right, during Hunterdon Central Regional High School football's "Senior Night" at the high school's stadium in Flemington, New Jersey.

Centre County District Attorney-elect Bernie Cantorna will look to pass Penn State's widely followed Beta Theta Pi case to the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.  

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Cantorna cited potential conflicts of interest stemming from previous counsel he provided to some of those charged in the February hazing death of sophomore Timothy Piazza. He said he consulted the Pennsylvania State Bar ethics committee for guidance on the decision.

"I have been advised to ask the Attorney General to take over these cases," Cantorna said. "I have done that so these cases can move forward in an efficient, timely and above-board manner.”

Cantorna's prior involvement with the case would have barred him from proceeding as a prosecutor unless he had secured an agreement of informed consent between the state and his former clients in private practice.

“I ran for office on a promise that I would work to restore integrity to our legal system,” Cantorna said. “Doing so means I must follow the ethics rules imposed on me and ensure that cases are not delayed. For these reasons, I am acting now as opposed to after taking office. Given that I will have no role in these cases, I have no further comment on the matters.”

A spokesperson for Shapiro's office said the request to take over the case will undergo careful review.

Piazza, a 19-year-old engineering student and pledge at Beta Theta Pi, died in February after sustaining severe injuries during a fall down a fraternity house staircase. 

Prosecutors said Piazza was given 18 drinks in 82 minutes during a ritual hazing event, yet fraternity brothers failed to get him medical attention for nearly 12 hours.

The ensuing case against Beta Theta Pi members has already taken several changes of direction, influenced in part by legally disputed surveillance footage from cameras installed throughout the fraternity house. 

Recovered footage allegedly showed fraternity members slapping Piazza and pouring liquid on him to keep him alert. In clear distress, prosecutors said Piazza fell a second time during the early morning hours of Feb. 3, striking his head on a metal staircase. He died of traumatic brain injuries and a ruptured spleen, according to the coroner's report.

At least two dozen people are now charged with offenses ranging from involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault to hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors.

The weeks and months after Piazza's death prompted a thorough re-evaluation of Penn State's Greek life system, including a crackdown on hazing and strict new rules governing alcohol at student social events. 

Cantorna said he has also asked the attorney general to take on the case of Jalene McClure, a daycare provider convicted in 2014 for the assault of a child under her watch. McClure's sentence was vacated last year and the case ordered to return to trial. 

In both scenarios, Cantorna added, it would not have been appropriate to pursue informed consent. 

"That sort of agreement might be possible in situations where the stakes are small, but not in cases like these."