Judge ponders reinstated charges in Penn St. frat death case

FILE- In this Aug. 31, 2017, file photo, District Judge Allen Sinclair arrives for the seventh day of preliminary hearings at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa. Sinclair threw out involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges against eight defendants in death of Tim Piazza in September. A hearing on Thursday, Dec. 7, will determine whether a new district judge will preside over what will be a second preliminary hearing, as prosecutors pursue reinstated criminal charges in the death of Piazza. (Phoebe Sheehan/Centre Daily Times via AP, File)
FILE- In this Sept. 1, 2017, file photo, Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair, left, leaves the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa. Sinclair threw out involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges against eight defendants in death of Tim Piazza. A hearing on Thursday, Dec. 7, will determine whether a new district judge will preside over what will be a second preliminary hearing, as prosecutors pursue reinstated criminal charges in the death of Piazza. (John Boogert/Centre Daily Times via AP, File)

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A prosecutor Thursday used a press release to sharply criticize a judge hearing the case against former Penn State fraternity members charged in a pledge's drinking death. Defense attorneys accused her of violating rules of professional conduct.

"While this case may be unusual and novel in complexity and number of defendants, the court has an obligation to handle it properly and be fair to both sides," Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller wrote in a statement. "To date, it has failed miserably."

Parks Miller was not in the courtroom as her seven-page news release was sent out to reporters at the same time that Common Pleas Court Judge Pamela Ruest was presiding over a hearing on whether to reinstate serious charges in the case that have been dismissed.

Parks Miller said Ruest would not let her participate by phone from out of town.

Defense lawyers argued the release was highly inappropriate and their clients were harmed by it.

"This press release violates the rules of professional conduct six different ways from Sunday," defense attorney Michael Engle told the judge, asking her to raise the matter with the body that investigates lawyer misconduct.

Defense attorney Frank Fina said Parks Miller was engaged in a type of "public litigation" that compromised the defendants' rights.

"A prosecutor deploying outside influences to try and get his or her way inside the courtroom — it's inherently contrary to the entire structure of the system, the entire way it's supposed to be," Fina argued.

Ruest has to decide whether to let prosecutors pursue dismissed charges in the case, and if she should appoint a new magisterial district judge to handle those re-filed charges in the Feb. 4 death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey. She did not indicate Thursday when she will rule.

Twenty-six people currently face criminal charges related to Piazza's death, which occurred two days after he suffered a series of falls and consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol during a pledge bid night at the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Some fraternity members face charges that could result in prison terms, while others are accused of hazing and alcohol violations.

After an unusually hard-fought preliminary hearing, which lasted seven days over three months, District Judge Allen Sinclair on Sept. 1 threw out many of the charges, including the most serious allegations of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. The district attorney subsequently refiled many of those counts and sought a new judge.

Sinclair "simply did not understand the theory and made many incongruous rulings by binding over some charges and dismissing others," prosecutor Michael Osterberg argued to Ruest.

Defense attorneys told Ruest that Sinclair's decision did not amount to legal error, so the dismissed charges should not be revived.

"Just because you disagree with the judge's ruling doesn't give you a second bite," argued defense attorney Ted Simon.

Sinclair also ruled there was evidence to send other charges to for trial, and they are currently pending in county court.

On Nov. 13, Parks Miller announced the FBI had helped recover erased security camera footage from the fraternity basement, providing evidence that Piazza had been given at least 18 drinks over less than 90 minutes.

That led her to file entirely new charges. A preliminary hearing for those "basement tapes" charges, which had been scheduled for next week in Bellefonte, has been postponed.

Security camera footage documented how Piazza became visibly inebriated early in the evening, after which fraternity members made ineffective and even counterproductive efforts to help him. He had suffered a fractured skull, shattered spleen and other injuries.

Fraternity members found his unconscious body in the basement the next morning, but waited about 40 minutes before summoning help.

Parks Miller, defeated in the spring Democratic primary, leaves office at the end of this month. Her successor, Democrat Bernie Cantorna, has indicated he will ask the state attorney general's office to take over the prosecution.

You may also interested in

10 Things to Know for Thursday

Aug 11, 2016

Among 10 Things to Know: Criticism may be slowing Trump train; 'Grim Sleeper' sent to death row; versatile ESPN sportscaster dies at 61

Trump on sidelines as Clinton fills Olympics airtime

Aug 9, 2016

Clinton is taking advantage of the millions of Americans tuned in to NBC to watch U.S. athletes rack up medals during the Olympics in Rio

UN bungles response to Africa's yellow fever outbreak

Aug 5, 2016

An AP investigation finds that 1 million doses of yellow fever vaccines vanished in Angola as the World Health Organization's response lagged for months

People also read these

House Speaker Paul Ryan wins GOP nomination to run again

Aug 10, 2016

House Speaker Paul Ryan has defeated a longshot Republican primary challenger who had been praised by Donald Trump

Beyond 'Obamacare': State initiatives refocus health debate

Aug 9, 2016

Political activists are looking to state ballot questions to move beyond "Obamacare" and refocus the nation's long-running debate over government's role in health care

Egypt house speaker wants illegal currency dealers executed

Aug 10, 2016

Egypt's flagship state newspaper is quoting the country's parliament speaker as saying illegal currency dealers should be executed

Weather, 20 December
Houston Weather
+7

High: +11° Low: -2°

Humidity: 83%

Wind: NNE - 7 KPH

Canberra Weather
+27

High: +27° Low: +17°

Humidity: 87%

Wind: W - 20 KPH

Roissy-en-France Weather
+6

High: +6° Low: -5°

Humidity: 87%

Wind: ENE - 7 KPH

Florence Weather
+9

High: +9° Low: +6°

Humidity: 97%

Wind: ENE - 17 KPH

Parga Weather
+7

High: +16° Low: +4°

Humidity: 100%

Wind: SE - 25 KPH