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Penn State frat members charged in booze-fueled hazing death return to court Thursday

| Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017, 10:51 p.m.
State College police Detective David Scicchitano leaves the Centre County courthouse Tuesday, July 11, 2017, in Bellefonte, Pa.
State College police Detective David Scicchitano leaves the Centre County courthouse Tuesday, July 11, 2017, in Bellefonte, Pa.

Sixteen Pennsylvania State University fraternity members charged in the hazing death of pledge Tim Piazza are expected to return to court Thursday to resume a hearing that will determine whether the case will move forward.

Prosecutors, in three days of hearings that have stretched on since June, have pushed Judge Allen Sinclair to give them the chance to hold the young men responsible for Piazza's Feb. 4 death after a booze-fueled induction ceremony that left the 19-year-old from Lebanon, N.J., unable to walk or stand on his own.

But defense lawyers for the members of Penn State's chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity have highlighted key questions likely to form the backbone of their clients' defense — including whether anyone forced the sophomore engineering major to consume a lethal amount of alcohol that night.

Sinclair could rule as soon as Friday on whether enough evidence exists to allow the unusual prosecution to proceed to trial. The case has ignited a new level of debate surrounding fraternity culture, hazing, and reckless college drinking.

Since the hearing began June 12 in Bellefonte, Centre County, State College Police Detective David Scicchitano, the case's lead investigator, has spent hours on the witness stand volleying questions from prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Lawyers for six of the eight defendants charged with the most serious offenses grilled Scicchitano in occasionally tense cross-examination during the last day of proceedings last month. Each attorney sought to minimize clients' alleged roles by showing that they either were not at the fraternity house the night Piazza was injured, didn't buy the alcohol, or played no role in planning the event.

Lawyers for 10 of the remaining 18 charged fraternity members are still awaiting a chance to question the detective Thursday. Two Beta Theta Pi members have waived their right to the hearing.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has remained silent on whether she intends to call any other witnesses before concluding her case.

Piazza died of a head injury, a ruptured spleen, and a collapsed lung two days after the party. Prosecutors say the fraternity members let him become dangerously drunk and injure himself in a series of falls, and then left him to die despite knowing he need medical attention.

The fraternity members facing the most serious charges — involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault — are: Beta Theta Pi fraternity president Brendan Young, 21, of Malvern; pledge master Daniel Casey, 19, of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; Gary DiBileo, 21, of Scranton; Nick Kubera, 19, of Downingtown; Luke Visser, 19, of Encitas, Calif.; Joe Sala, 19, of Erie; Michael Bonatucci, 19, of Woodstock, Ga.; and Jonah Neuman, 19, of Nashville.

Ten others face lesser charges, including hazing, recklessly endangering another person, furnishing alcohol to minors, and tampering with evidence.

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