Defendants challenge evidence in fraternity hazing death case

Criminal Defense
By Goodwin Como, P.C.

A preliminary hearing continued today for the third day in the case of Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the death of a pledge in February. The fraternity itself and 18 members are facing charges, with some potentially being charged with aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter.

According to the Associated Press, the 19-year-old pledge apparently drank a dangerous amount of alcohol, fell down a set of steps, and suffered injuries that were not treated in time. He died the next day at a hospital. The main questions in the case are whether the young man was coerced into drinking too much alcohol and whether the members of the fraternity knew or should have known he needed medical attention.

A preliminary hearing allows defendants to fight the charges against them

In a Pennsylvania criminal case, a preliminary hearing is held in order to determine whether the prosecution has sufficient proof of every element of the charges against the defendants. If it does not, some or all of the charges must be dropped.

The hearing is not as detailed as a trial, but the crucial evidence must be presented and the defendant, who can be represented by counsel, can ask questions, cross-examine witnesses, and present evidence to show the prosecution has failed to meet its burden. In this case, two of the defendants waived their right to the preliminary hearing, but the fraternity and the other 16 are actively challenging the case against them.

Evidence against Beta Theta Pi includes texts, video footage of event

“It’s not the fact that he drank. He drank because we hazed him too. Main word being hazed,” reads a test one Beta Theta Pi member sent another. That may be read to indicate they hazed the young man into drinking, or that they hazed him in addition to his drinking.

Other evidence included apparently extensive video footage from the fraternity’s surveillance system. The video appears to show the young pledge undergoing a “drinking gauntlet,” then later falling down a set of basement steps. He was carried upstairs, where he ended up on a couch.

Unfortunately, he appears to be holding his head and abdomen in discomfort and was unable to stand without falling repeatedly. He died of injuries including a fractured skull, a damaged spleen, and bleeding in his abdomen and brain. It’s unclear whether the alcohol directly contributed to his death.

The AP notes that Penn State has permanently banned this Beta Theta Pi chapter.