Eighteen Penn State students, all of whom are Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers, face more than 850 charges combined in connection with the death of a fellow student earlier this year. In June, the prosecution spent an entire day laying out evidence arguing why the case should go to trial. There is so much information that the judge extended the preliminary hearing, giving the prosecution two more days in mid-July to continue presenting evidence. Much of the evidence presented so far is video from the night of partying that led to the engineering student's death.
A preliminary hearing is conducted, often before a judge, to determine if the prosecution has enough evidence for the case to go to trial. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys are allowed to bring witnesses who can present evidence to bolster their cases for or against a trial. Attorneys also are allowed to cross-examine witnesses. If at the end of the hearing, the judge does not find probable cause, the case can be dismissed. Probable cause means there is a reasonable basis to believe a crime has been committed.
A grand jury concluded that even though the fraternity brothers were aware of the severity of the student's condition, they waited 12 hours to seek medical attention for him. A grand jury, made up of between 16 and 23 people, is convened to decide whether to return an indictment in a criminal case. An indictment comes at the beginning of the criminal prosecution process when formal charges are brought against a person, or, as in the Penn State case, persons. In the grand jury report, 18 fraternity brothers are charged in the student's death, including eight who face manslaughter charges. The Beta Theta Pi fraternity that hosted the ill-fated party, referred to as a pledging ceremony, has since been shut down.
There is no question the 19-year-old sophomore died after repeatedly falling down stairs during a night of heavy drinking at the February pledging ceremony, however, attorneys for the 18 students argue that the charges are extreme. An attorney for one of the students charged with manslaughter believes the charges are “excessive” and his client is not criminally responsible for the death. Another defense attorney said there is significant evidence in the prosecution's own videos that shows the student was not forced to drink alcohol and that the conduct of the fraternity members “did not rise to the level of hazing under Pennsylvania law."
When excessive news coverage leads to public outcry over an incident, prosecutors can levy unusually harsh or even inappropriate charges in order to preserve a public image of being tough on crime. If you have been arrested or are facing criminal charges, call the Law Offices of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.