By David DeKok
BELLEFONTE, Pa. (Reuters) - The president of a Pennsylvania State University fraternity could have stopped the heavy drinking that led to the death of a prospective new member in February, a police detective testified at a hearing for 16 frat brothers charged in the hazing death.
Brandon Young, head of the Beta Theta Pi chapter, allowed the "pledges" to drink large quantities of alcoholic drinks during initiations in February, said David Scicchitano, a detective in State College, Pennsylvania.
One of the newcomers, 19-year-old Timothy Piazza, fell down a flight of stairs after becoming intoxicated and died two days later. His blood alcohol level was nearly four times higher than the legal limit. The legal drinking age in Pennsylvania is 21.
“Brandon could have stopped it at any time,” Scicchitano said at the preliminary hearing at Centre County Court of Common Pleas in Bellefonte. “He was the president. He had total authority to stop all that.”
Young and seven others face felony aggravated-assault charges that could put them in prison for years. The rest are charged with misdemeanors, including involuntary manslaughter.
Frank Fina, Young's lawyer, told the hearing that neither his client nor any of the defendants forced Piazza to consume the alcohol that led to his death.
The pledge chose to drink to please the fraternity, said Fina, best known as a prosecutor in the child sexual abuse case against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller argued at Monday's hearing that the state anti-hazing law under which the accused was charged assumes a lack of consent by the alleged victim.
Scicchitano, under cross-examination by Fina at a continuation of a hearing that started on June 10, also testified that two private guards hired to check for alcohol visited the house on the night when Piazza sustained his fatal injuries.
But neither the guards, known as "social checkers," nor an assistant athletic director who lived at the house were there when Piazza fell down the stairs, Schiccitano said.
The detective said guards hired by an inter-fraternity council were generally ineffective in stopping abuses because most were students and did not have full access to patrol frat houses.
Earlier, he said Beta Theta Pi members bought more than $2,000 worth of drinks for the initiations. Most of the pledges, including Piazza, who was 19, were underage.
After the hearing, Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair will decide whether the 16 defendants, and two others who waived preliminary hearings, will stand trial.
(Reporting by Frank McGurty; Editing by Richard Chang and Cynthia Osterman)