First trial In Penn State hazing death case focuses on security footage
Braxton Becker, left, left the Centre County Courthouse during the first day of the jury trial on his alleged deletion of security footage in relation to the case of the hazing death of Tim Piazza in 2017. (Min Xian/WPSU)
(State College) — The jury trial for Braxton Becker, a former member and the house manager of Penn State’s now defunct Beta Theta Pi fraternity, began Tuesday. It’s the first jury trial in the case related to the hazing death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza in 2017. Becker allegedly deleted security camera footage of the fraternity house basement.
Piazza suffered fatal injuries during the fraternity’s spring 2017 bid acceptance night. His death prompted Pennsylvania to impose stricter antihazing laws and the university to begin Greek life reform. More than two dozen former fraternity brothers have been implicated in both the criminal and civil cases related to Piazza’s death.
Citing the exchange of text and GroupMe messages among Becker and other former Beta Theta Pi brothers, prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s office want to prove that Becker tampered with evidence, obstructed justice and hindered apprehension.
“I can see if I can erase last night,” Becker wrote the day after Piazza’s fall down a flight of stairs, in a message read aloud at trial by Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari. Madaffari said Becker showed “willingness to delete the video” and left police investigating for months without knowing about the surveillance footage that was allegedly deleted.
Karen Muir, Becker’s defense attorney, reminded the jury that the burden to prove beyond reasonable doubt is on prosecutors and said they hadn’t met their burden.
Four State College Police Department officers and detectives testified on Tuesday.
Detective Craig Ripka testified that once he realized the fraternity house had cameras, he immediately asked to see the camera footage, because it “can’t be made up.”
Timothy Piazza’s family–his brother Michael Piazza, far left, mother Evelyn, second from right, his father James Piazza, far right, and his girlfriend Kaitlyn Tempalsky, second from left, pose following an interview on Monday May 15, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Ripka said members of the fraternity, including Braxton Becker, were cooperative with the police investigation. He also testified that he believed when he was told the four cameras in the basement weren’t operational and that additional IT support was needed since the amount of footage available would take hours, if not days, to download.
Prosecution said the alleged deletion was recorded in the system log, shown as an entry that reads “clear all data.” They argued that Becker had the access and opportunity to carry out the deletion, while Ripka was present but distracted. Defense countered that Ripka previously testified he was “watching over Becker’s shoulders.”
State College Police Detective David Scicchitano took the witness stand on Tuesday as well. He testified that, in July 2017, he came to realize that footage from the basement might have been deleted. He then contacted the FBI for forensic examination of the two DVR boxes Beta Theta Pi turned over to the police department.
The FBI recovered the basement footage in late 2017, resulting in more criminal charges.
Becker was identified as the “sole operator” of the fraternity house’s surveillance system. All three charges he faces were previously dismissed, until a judge decided last November he would go to trial.
The trial is scheduled to continue throughout the week.