Judge tosses charges against Niskayuna man in Penn State case

Braxton Becker is seen in Bellefonte Pennsylvania, last year, when he appeared at a preliminary hearing. (Philly.com)Braxton Becker is seen in Bellefonte Pennsylvania, last year, when he appeared at a preliminary hearing. (Philly.com)

NISKAYUNA — A Niskayuna man accused of deleting crucial surveillance video following the death of a Penn State fraternity pledge saw all charges against him dismissed on Monday.

Braxton Becker had faced three misdemeanor counts tampering, obstructing and hindering, accused of secretly deleting a set of recordings from the night Timothy Piazza suffered fatal injuries from an alcohol-induced fall last year.

As part of a larger ruling that also touched on other defendants accused of contributing to Piazza’s death, the judge tossed all three counts against Becker on Monday. The judge also tossed the most serious counts against the other defendants, according to the ruling.

Becker never faced hazing or other charges related to Piazza’s death.

The judge’s ruling came after a three-day hearing last week to determine whether prosecutors had enough evidence to take the charges to trial.

In Becker’s case, the judge found prosecutors did not present enough evidence to support the charges.

Prosecutors from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office last week presented photos taken by investigators that showed Becker in front of the surveillance camera system console at the Beta Theta Phi house, his finger on the remote, according to an account from PennLive.com. Prosecutors argued the photo was taken at the same time the FBI said the video was deleted. Investigators later recovered the video.

The investigator was at the house Feb. 6, 2017, to get Becker’s help to download the video — two days after Piazza’s death. The FBI determined someone intentionally deleted the video at 10:38 a.m. that day. The investigators took the photos of Becker at the exact minute he was helping the investigators, according to PennLive’s account.

Becker’s attorney Karen Muir countered that technical problems were the source of any missing or deleted video, and a technician had been at the house a month earlier, PennLive wrote.

“Can you tell if Braxton Becker is deleting video in this photo?” Muir asked the investigator, according to PennLive.

“No,” the investigator responded.

Muir could not be reached Monday afternoon for comment on the judge’s ruling.

Prosecutors filed the now-dismissed charges against Becker in November, along with charges against 16 other fraternity members. Becker was a member of the fraternity and was the house manager.

In their charging affidavit, prosecutors included text messages — sent after Piazza’s death — between Becker and other fraternity members related to the surveillance video. Becker received a text message from another fraternity member that suggested erasing the videos, the affidavit states.

“Erasing the cameras could be the look as long as no one found out,” the fellow member messaged the 2014 Niskayuna High grad Becker, according to the account.

Becker responded, “I think the exact same thing… The guy told me to check them in like a few days to make sure they were recording. I could say I checked and they weren’t and just turned them on … I want to talk to Brendan”.

The investigator reported that Becker told him the four surveillance cameras weren’t working, “and the people installing them were in the process of fixing them,” according to that account.

Before heading to Penn State, Becker won a $5,000 leadership scholarship from the Schenectady Foundation. That award was announced in August 2014.

A Pennsylvania Attorney General statement issued in response to the ruling Monday did not address Becker’s case specifically, but instead addressed the ruling in its entirety.

“The Office of Attorney General is committed to seeking justice for Timothy Piazza and his family and holding responsible individuals accountable for their actions, consistent with the law and the evidence in this case,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in the statement. “We are in the process of reviewing the judge’s decision to determine next steps, and are pleased that 11 more defendants we charged will be headed to trial.”

Monday’s dismissal marks the second time charges against Becker have been tossed in the hazing death case.

In September, another judge tossed an evidence tampering count that accused Becker of directing people “to destroy social media/forensic phone evidence,” according to court documents.

Becker still faces marijuana charges that pre-date Piazza’s death. Specifically, he is accused of selling large amounts of marijuana. The investigation into those sales began in November 2016, nearly three months before Piazza’s death.