By David DeKok
BELLEFONTE, Pa. (Reuters) - A Pennsylvania State University fraternity pledge who died in February after consuming massive amounts of alcohol was one of several prospective members who felt compelled to drink to gain admission, a police detective testified on Tuesday.
David Scicchitano, a detective in State College, Pennsylvania, took the witness stand for a third day at a hearing for 16 fraternity brothers charged in the Feb. 4 hazing death of Timothy Piazza.
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"Multiple people told me that this was a rite of passage, a way to get accepted by the fraternity," Scicchitano said. "Pledges felt if they didn't participate, they wouldn't get into the fraternity."
The 16 members of Beta Theta Pi face a range of criminal charges after Piazza, 19, fell multiple times, including down a flight of stairs, after ingesting toxic amounts of alcohol. Authorities say the fraternity brothers waited for hours before calling for medical help.
The preliminary hearing determines whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.
The proceeding, which has moved slowly due to the number of defendants, is scheduled to continue for at least two more days in August.
Steven Trialonis, a defense lawyer for Daniel Casey, the "pledge master" who allegedly gave Piazza a bottle of vodka he was expected to drink, questioned whether Piazza and other pledges were forced to drink or participated willingly.
Trialonis also argued that "The Gauntlet," a drinking obstacle course in which pledges consumed large amounts of vodka, wine and beer in the span of a few minutes, was not as dangerous as prosecutors had portrayed, saying only two prospective members had ever been injured.
But Scicchitano testified that the pledges "felt compelled" to drink.
Eight members, including Casey and the fraternity president, Brandon Young, face charges including aggravated assault that could result in many years in prison. The other defendants are charged with misdemeanors.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by James Dalgleish)