Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity and 16 members are challenging the case against them in a preliminary hearing on the February hazing death of a pledge. According to a police detective testifying at the hearing, the 19-year-old pledge drank a dangerous amount of alcohol before falling down a set of basement steps. The detective says the young man’s medical condition then went untreated. He died after suffering a skull fracture, spleen damage, and bleeding in the brain and abdomen.
According to the Associated Press, the now-permanently banned chapter of the fraternity and 18 members are facing various charges. Some may be charged with aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter. Others face less serious charges. The preliminary hearing is meant to determine which will be brought to trial on which charges.
The purpose of a preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania
In a criminal case, a preliminary hearing is meant to determine whether the prosecution has a so-called “prima facie” case against the defendants. Essentially, the question is whether the prosecution has enough evidence to prove every element of the charges it proposes to bring against the defendants.
In Pennsylvania, defendants have the right to challenge the prosecution’s prima facie case by cross-examination and even by bringing their own witnesses. Neither side is meant to try the case as if the hearing were a trial. Instead, the point is merely to determine whether the prosecution should be allowed to go forward. Two defendants waived their right to the hearing.
Texts, security video footage presented as evidence
The only witness so far has been the investigating officer, a State College police detective. Other evidence presented has included extensive footage from the fraternity’s security video system. According to reporters, it appeared to show the young man participating in a “drinking gauntlet” with fraternity members.
He later feel down the basement steps, allegedly, and was carried upstairs, ultimately ending up on a couch. The footage apparently shows the young man in some discomfort and unable to stand without falling repeatedly. He remained on the couch, apparently receiving no medical attention, until the following morning. He died later at a hospital.
At least one text was brought forward. In it, one fraternity member texted another saying, “It’s not the fact that he drank. He drank because we hazed him too. Main word being hazed.”
Defense attorneys focused on whether any of the activities the young man took part in were coerced. If not, the facts may indicate a tragedy in which an intoxicated young man fell down steps and injured himself, then failed to realize it or signal his distress until it was too late.