THE NEW JUDGE, STEVEN LACHLAN & HIS HISTORY
This second preliminary hearing was held this week. On 8:30 Wednesday the Defendants, and a clusterf#ck gaggle of lawyers showed up, salivating and ready to fight, only growing more emboldened as they walked through flashing camera lights and a massive crowd of journalists and reporters.
These lawyers were only to learn, just minutes later, that soft spoken and elderly Judge Carmen Prestia would no longer be presiding over the case. The sweet (at times malleable) Judge had fallen ill in the days leading up to the second preliminary hearing.
The tension was palpable when this was announced; the change in Judges was quite unexpected.
A barrage of media cluttered the courtroom floor as Josh Shapiro’s minions Deputy Attorney Generals objected to this abrupt change, likely because of Stacy Parks Miller’s former words about Lachlan. While it is considered extremely unethical and against the rules to openly criticize Judges, or their rulings, or their reputations in the public, this was at the end of the election: And anyone who has been following knows that Stacy Parks Miller could give a damn about ethics.
In a crazy, four page meandering and hysterical press release issued by Parks Miller in December of 2017, (just days before she left office) she had this to say about Judge Lachlan:
- MDJ Lachlan was assigned to arraign the Beta brothers on the new charges that were filed after we received the recovered the deleted basement video from the FBI. Even after being alerted to the Commonwealth’s request to recuse him from hearing on the refiled charges, he engaged in behavior that contributed to concerns about his bias against the Commonwealth and in favor of student defendants/Beta Theta Pi defendants.The Commonwealth filed these new concerns with the Court to supplement its Motion for his recusal. (See attached Supplemental Motion to Recuse MDJ Lachlan.) Lachlan unilaterally chose to refrain from proceeding on the new complaints by immediately scheduling preliminary arraignments to not “bother” the new felony defendants over their Thanksgiving. He was so concerned about the defendants that he attempted to “withdraw” warrants he was required by law to issue. He also refused to file all of the appropriate charges on one particular Defendant, telling the Officer he would only accept the complaint if the detective dropped one count of Furnishing Alcohol to Minors. [CITATION: Press Release by Stacy Parks Miller on December 7, 2017]
This quite deliciously insane press release was accompanied – even more scandalously – by an equally neurotic motion to recuse Lachlan on the basis of his “ties” and “sympathy” towards Penn State students. Judge Ruest, Judge Lachlan and the rest of the court were not immune to understanding how rash, erratic, retaliatory and angry Parks Miller had grown after losing the election to Cantorna in November 2017.
Her in-court behavior had always unpredictable; her statements to the press were cringe-worthy; her public press releases embarrassing to watch. But this was a new level of nuts. In the words of Shakespeare….. “Hell hath no fury like a …….”
After losing the election by a landslide, her reckless and hell-bent activities included taking trips to Las Vegas on the county dime; as well as composing a barrage of late night emails containing threats and promises to sue those whom she perceived as her arch enemies and/or had “ruined” her.
I am included in the list of people to be sued.
Essentially, in light of this unstable behavior, the Judges locked her out of a case she had already wrecked. Meanwhile, concurrent to the lockout, she is issuing orders to law enforcement who no longer want anything to do with her. She was demanding that the defendants in the Piazza case be sought out, locked down and thrown in jail over Thanksgiving, but not a single one of the Judges would sign a bail order. With the attention unrelieved to her demands, she had traipsed up to New York and appeared on Good Morning America looking highly drugged, and went to Vegas on the funds of tax payers and had herself a damn good time. She called it a CLE, I bet county tax records reflect not a CLE, but a “party.”
It was likely the case that it was better that she had not been allowed by any of these Judges to cause any further embarrassment to Centre County Courts or their sitting Judges; or more importantly, cause any more damage to the inherent integrity of this case. The disciplinary board, postponing a disciplinary board hearing previously scheduled in November, and then December, was watching her in a shocked state of vigilance.
They shut her down, in every case and now this one, mitigating their damages and counting the days before the new administration could take over.
WHY JOSH SHAPIRO’S OFFICE NOW HAS JURISDICTION OF THE CASE? WHY IS THE PIAZZA CRIMINAL CASE NOT BEING PROSECUTED LOCALLY?
Before taking office, the then-incumbent Centre County District Attorney, Bernie Cantorna, wrote the State Board of Ethics for ethical advice.
Cantorna was concerned about a potential conflict of interest involving the Piazza case, and he wanted to run this potential conflict by them for extra precaution. The State Board of Ethics quickly responded to his concerns, and issued an opinion. Indeed – the Ethics Committee agreed with Cantorna – it would be a direct conflict of interest if Bernie Cantorna were to prosecute this case.
As such, even before Cantorna took office, the Piazza case was referred up to the Office of the Attorney General Josh Shapiro for criminal prosecution. Shapiro, alarmed at how controversial and what a “hot-button” case this had become, wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Opinions were so divided in this case, and with his plans for the Governor’s race in 2020, he all but goes out of his way to avoid controversy or pissing off Penn State.
But Josh Shapiro’s reluctance to take the case seemed to quickly change.
I imagine, when Tom Kline got a hold of him and the two talked about Shapiro’s ambitions for a Governor’s campaign, Kline alluded to his fat his bank account, and Shapiro wavered. After a “four-month review,” and likely promises of future donations, Shapiro was on board to screw Penn State. He was complicit in overcharging the brothers and setting up Kline for a future record-breaking civil case against Penn State. Now, Shapiro – instead of publicly expressing reluctance – was suddenly releasing one news conference and press releases after another. Each seemed tightly scripted and attempting to cater both to the Tom Kline and the Piazzas, as well as the Penn State community, while both seemed at odds with each other over the case.
For all you wealthy or powerful criminal defendants, that is the beauty of Shapiro: He is always for sale. Justice can be bought, but the price is high.
JUDGE LACHLAN TAKES CONTROL OF THE COURTROOM, AND BEGINS TO ADDRESS THE SIMPLE “FURNISHING OF ALCOHOL” CASE WHICH SOMEHOW GOT TURNED INTO “MANSLAUGHTER”
Despite objections, Lachlan assumes the bench.
Judge Steven Lachlan entered court and assumed the bench early Thursday morning after many heated criticisms and arguments which were hard fought and lost by the OAG on Wednesday.
A red head from Brooklyn, Steven Lachlan has the reputation of presiding over a tightly run court. I speculate this is part of the reason that he and Parks Miller were constantly butting heads. He didn’t put up with the chaotic, emotionally-manipulative presentations to the jury. She was unafraid to put on a performance, or to lie about evidence in the pursuit of “winning” criminal cases, but her hysterics, histrionics and temper tantrums were quickly interrupted by the Brooklyn-native. Judge Lachlan is a New Yorker at heart, a personality type I do not normally tend to like, but I will say this about him: He has a remarkable way of remaining in control over courtroom proceedings.
THE SCANDALOUS TAPES OF THE HEDONISTIC PARTY AT THE BETA HOUSE
The hearing began with most of the room of lawyers knowing this, having been in front of Lachlan before. The proceedings this time around had a different feel. Judge Lachlan asked pointed questions about legal theory, interrupted lawyers when they went off course, and took authority that added clarity to the case.
Centre Daily Times journalist, Bret Pallatio, reports that:
- Prosecutors played previously deleted video clips from the basement of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house for a second consecutive day Thursday and a former brother’s defense attorney questioned a detective’s potential bias. The lights in the basement video are flashing, sporadic and multicolored, while there are numerous former brothers and pledges that fill each frame of the video. CITATION
I’ve never seen the video myself, but I have been told it is gruesome. It is a violent fall, and contains an “alcohol soaked” account of a sequence of events that Lachlan felt had no relevance to the case.
While the clips pumped up the drama and inflated the shocking and scurrilous excitement of the media in the room, it was Lachlan’s judicial opinion that they had no bearing of the charges levied. The charges, which mainly center around “furnishing” and “criminal intent”, seemed to not bolster the admission of evidence of civil negligence depicted in the tapes during the aftermath of the Piazza’s fall. Lachlan felt that the violent and sickening video depicting Piazza’s fall only caused to heighten the emotionally fueled sensationalism surrounding the case; he wanted a calculated analysis of law as it applies to the charges and was uninterested in the ethos-filled circus within the courtroom gallery.
A NOTE ON DEFENSE COUNSEL TABLE, MOST NOTABLY: DEFENSE LAWYER PHILIP MASORTI, “A HUMAN WRECKING BALL.”
Bulky, bulging, huge-handed, eagle-eyed and ostentatiously large in stature, Defense lawyer Philip Masorti is known for his passionate arguments and sometimes over the top intensity. He has been removed from court before in handcuffs after being stirred up and arguing veraciously.
Once a college football player, he is hot tempered, competitive and abrupt, he is easy to instigate into a morally offended rage, and once stirred up hard to wrangle back in. A messy eater, he talks more than he listens, and his arguments mimic his physical appearance: Bold, aggressive, bald and larger than life.
Judge Lachlan, who, historically, has little patience with lawyers who seem to add emotional fuel to a raging fire of any criminal court case, always seemed to have a little soft spot for Masorti, or at least he did today. Like in sports, if Masorti sees a referee (Judge) making a bad call, he’s the guy that all the players have to hold back from fighting with the referee or physically attacking the opponent. That edgy sense of passion and competitiveness that made him a damn good football player on the field, makes him an effective (albeit unpredictable and, at times, a loose cannon) lawyer on the courtroom floor. If Masorti’s moral sensibilities become offended, he returns a threat of pepper spray by busting out a sledgehammer, and starts to swing. Lachlan seemed willing to listen, but knew the exact moments when to tell the wild animal to cool off, it was synergy in motion. Judge Lachlan does, indeed, run a very tight courtroom, and seems to bring just that to the Piazza criminal hearings.
- Philip Masorti, defense attorney for Ryan Burke, argued the footage is not clear enough for State College police detective David Scicchitano to identify specific brothers.
Masorti was loud during the early parts of the hearing, and ready to throw some punches. He was looking to brawl.
Lachlan, undeterred by the press, listened reasonably, interrupting when he started to see the wrecking ball in Masorti begin to boil. He reasoned sternly at times:
- “He (Scicchitano) has reviewed these, probably, ad nauseam. His travel log is useful to the court in terms of identifying what’s going on,” District Judge Steven Lachlan said as he overruled Masorti’s first objection. CITATION
And Masorti seemed to grow more subdued, and more trusting and respectful with the Lachlan’s authority, but – of course – couldn’t help to get in the last word in every argument or line of questioning.
- “That many hours leads to an investigatory bias. It might be subconscious to detective Scicchitano,” Masorti said in his second objection. CITATION
The rest of the lawyers at the defense table sat benignly listening, it seemed, as the hot-headed, stirred-up, puffed-out chest of Masorti raged on. Their wide-eyed clients listened intensely and watched closely. Lachlan tried to soften his overrulement, saying:
- “I happen to agree with you. From this particular video, I didn’t see him (a fraternity member) take a swig from the bottle,” Lachlan said as he again overruled Masorti’s objection, but left open the option for Masorti to revisit the question. “You may have lost the battle, but won the war.” CITATION
Masorti seemed assured. He adjusted his tie, looked over his shoulders, and sat down. For that moment, purportedly, he seemed reasonably convinced the hearing might be fairly presided over. The prosecution continued.
- Chief Deputy Attorney General Andrew Notaristefano continued to play individual compilations for several other brothers who are charged.
THE VIDEOS CONTINUE, AND THEN LACHLAN STOPS THE PROSECUTION WITH A SURPRISING MOVE:
When Lachlan told Masorti that he had “lost the battle, but not the war,” it was only later on during the proceedings when the press-fueled emotional audience could see exactly what Lachlan had been alluding to.
As the video evidence approached the time of fall, the rest of the defense lawyers – likely emboldened and influenced by the fighting Italian among them – began to follow suit and issued the same objections. The closer and closer it got to the clip of Piazza falling and the aftermath, the more heated the objections became:
- Stephanie Cesare, Jason Dunkle, James Burke, Steven Passarello and John Sughrue all raised objections similar to Masorti, claiming the video was not clear enough to identify specific brothers. CITATION
He let the prosecution go on, and watched carefully, his eyes ignoring the stirred up defense table, a clusterfuck of lawyers…and Tom Kline glaring in the front row of the audience, clearly displeased by the way Lachlan was listening to both sides and hearing out the defense.
- Notaristefano then played video of 19-year-old pledge Timothy Piazza staggering throughout the Beta Theta Pi house before suffering a fall down the basement stairs, which made him unconscious. CITATION
The room fell silent, the media was bug-eyed, and the fraternity brothers of Beta watched on with white, sickened faces. Piazza’s mother began to cry. Shapiro’s OAG purportedly looked smug at the effect the video had on the room. Allegedly he looked like he was disguising a smirk. The emotional effect of the video is apparently raw, and staggeringly confusing to any onlooker, even a Judge.
LACHLAN ALLOWS THE VIDEO OF THE FALL ITSELF TO BE ENTERED IN BUT DENIES THE AFTERMATH, MUCH TO THE CHAGRIN OF KLINE AND SHAPIRO’S OFFICE:
In the first preliminary hearing, I remember hearing that the tone of the room changed drastically after the video of Piazza’s fall was played. People were tearful, the media was illicitly typing away on their smart phones. What heightened that moment of Tim Piazza falling were the moments afterwards that were played, and narrated scene by scene – in all it’s gruesome and ghastly inflammatory images – during the first preliminary hearing.
The difference between the first hearing and the second, is that Judge Lachlan did not want to see anything after the fall. He said it wasn’t relevant and interrupted the OAG, who was salivating with victory, and ready to tack more clips to embellish the palpable disgust in the room and turn it to anger.
Lachlan was not out to stir additional emotions if they came with no substantive legal reason. He wasn’t about to embrace bias for the sake of a fascinated media circus.
- Lachlan interrupted Notaristefano’s video compilation and asked if the video after Piazza’s fall was relevant because the charges against the 12 former brothers happened at what he called the “front-end of the night.” Notaristefano said the video after Piazza’s fall may not be relevant, but he was attempting to establish the reckless endangerment charges against five of the 12 former brothers. CITATION
“You’ve established causation,” Lachlan said. “Move on to something else.”
It was a hit for the prosecution, it was a punch in the gut. What makes the video of Tim’s death so compelling is the brutality of the fall itself. Once a person witnesses such violence, their emotions seem to get out of check, and they want to direct their anger – perhaps senselessly – towards something or someone responsible. I would bet the video after the fall will be ruled as relevant by a Judge in the upcoming civil suit, but it’s Lachlan’s contentions that this video has no basis for argument relevant to the criminal charges filed by the OAG.
In Judge Lachlan’s seasoned mind, criminal and civil negligence are two very different things.
THE DELETED VIDEO
State College Police Detective Scicchitano was on the stand:
- During his review of the video, Scicchitano testified the footage began on Feb. 6, 2017, at about 10:09 a.m., which was the same day a “Clear all data” log was found. The FBI office in Philadelphia confirmed the “Clear all data” log during their recovery efforts. CITATION
The detective played well into the prosecutors hand, as he argued that fraternity brothers had deleted the footage to hide it from law enforcement:
- Notaristefano also presented several text messages between Becker and other brothers that indicated a desire to suppress the video from law enforcement. “Erasing the camera could be the look if nobody found out,” a person texted Becker. “I think the exact same thing,” Becker responded. CITATION
DEFENSE LAWYER PHILIP MASORTI GETS THE LAST WORD IN WITH DETECTIVE SCICCHITANO
Masorti was reeling to attack during his cross examination. By first-hand accounts, he seemed to explode out of his seat, compose himself, and begin. When he stands, he is so large, he can be seen as a threat with his physiology. Scicchitano and Masorti have had their encounters in other cases, and don’t necessarily see eye to eye:
- During Scicchitano’s cross-examination, Masorti established Scicchitano has become skilled at identifying intoxicated individuals in his 24 years at the State College police department. He then cited a statement from Scicchitano’s affidavit of probable cause, which said the first time Piazza appeared intoxicated was 9:54 p.m. CITATION
Masorti had a well-crafted and played out attack for the detective:
- Masorti then said his client allegedly gave Piazza vodka at 9:46 p.m. and asked Scicchitano if it is reckless to give someone alcohol if they don’t appear intoxicated. Scicchitano said it was not, but Notaristefano objected to the question because he argued Ryan Burke’s perception in person would be different than Scicchitano’s perception of what he called a “grainy video.” CITATION
Years before Masorti had been in another position after being sued by the District Attorney and fighting to maintain his reputation in practice. Today, in the spotlight of national media, he must have felt a tad vindicated. I’ll never forget the words of Masorti after he was sued by a sitting District Attorney, after the lawsuit was dismissed by federal Judge Brann…
- With regard to Parks Miller’s pleadings in this matter, Attorney Masorti stated: “In my opinion and with no intention of being defamatory, my hamster could author a better pleading and would likewise make more sense. He would also be a better prosecutor if given the opportunity to work in that position which, oddly, may occur since 50 employees have quit her office.”
Masorti beats to his own drum, and won’t back down. As reckless and disruptive as he is, there is something intrinsically effective about his demeanor.
THE CASE WRAPS UP ON FRIDAY…… WITH FOUR OF THE REMAINING GAGGLE OF DEFENSE ATTORNEYS CROSSING DETECTIVE SCICCHITANO IN THE HOT SEAT…
Tom Kline was willing to talk to the press during the lunch recess. He left quietly that afternoon by all accounts. In my opinion, he was likely annoyed that much of the evidence displaying “civil negligence” in the aftermath of Piazza’s fall was not allowed in the criminal case.
What a massive destruction of “the record” for Kline who will likely enter all these criminal transcripts into evidence when he sues the Bee-Jesus out of Penn State in the coming year.
- Eight of 12 defendants had their attorneys cross-examine Scicchitano and the remaining four defendants are scheduled to have their attorneys cross-examine him Friday. Prosecutors plan to call Ripka as their second and final witness. Each defense attorney said they do not plan to call their own witnesses and both sides agreed they anticipated finishing the hearing Friday. CITATION
The case picks up Friday, and the Judge is predicted to issue an ruling by Monday.