The aggravated assault charges are in connection to an October fight at the HUB on the Penn State campus. It occurred at the end of a fraternity party.
Both players were cleared of felony assault charges in a preliminary hearing in December, but a new preliminary hearing was ordered when Centre County president judge David Grine determined that the original district judge for the case Carmen Prestia made a mistake in the original hearing.
To avoid putting other Centre County district judges in a bad spot by taking over for one of their own, a Blair County district judge, Fred Miller, heard this case.
As always, these comments are offered from a casual observer, not someone with a legal background or a background of covering legal proceedings.
Assistant district attorney Steve Sloane was 20 minutes late for the hearing because he had to drop off his child at school in State College. Because of the early scheduled start for the hearing (before 9 a.m.), when Sloane arrived at the school, there was no one there to stay with the child. So he had to wait.
The hearing was in a very small courtroom. There were at most 30 people in the room, including the defendants and members of their families. Baker was in a green, short-sleeved shirt with white stripes and Bowman in a black dress shirt with a black tie. They sat in the gallery during the hearing, while the attorney were in front of the bar.
Sloane called four witnesses, including the alleged victim, Varney Capehart. I missed the first two witnesses (including Capehart). But according to other press members who were on hand, Capehart was the least convincing of the witnesses called. At one point he admitted that he mistakenly identified another player as one of his assailants but - after being informed by police that he had the wrong guy shortly before the first preliminary hearing - instead said Baker was involved. We later discovered that the misidentified player was linebacker Bani Gbadyu.
The stories of the witnesses varied a bit. But basically they all said the incident occurred near the end of the party, and that two men they believed were football players followed Capehart out of the room the party was in and into another room. They said Capehart was then attacked. They said Bowman and Baker were the primary attackers and that they were quickly joined by anywhere from 10 to 20 of their teammates. Realizing the prosecution does not have to prove guilt at these hearings only that enough evidence is there to bind the charges over to trial I wasn't surprised when it was in fact bound over.
Once Capehart made his statement about initially identifying the wrong player, defense attorneys Karen Muir (Baker) and Stacy Parks Miller (Bowman) began hammering home a theme that police scripted what the witnesses were saying. At one point, witness Leonard Wakefield admitted that he met with police Tuesday night to discuss what he would say in court Wednesday. This caused someone in the courtroom to gasp loudly. The judge admonished them to quiet down or they would be thrown out.
The defense attorneys also spent considerable time trying to point out inconsistencies in the testimony the witnesses gave at this hearing as opposed to the previous hearing and even what they initially said when interviewed by police. There was significant nit-picking here, I suspect in part so these inconsistencies can be brought up again if the case goes to trial. I would also imagine that the differences in the testimony between witness will be highlighted. For instance, one witness said Bowman began the attack on Capehart, and that Baker joined in. Another said they both attacked Capehart at the same time.
Baker and Bowman both had poor body language at the hearing. The former spent much of the time leaning over the seats in front of him. The latter sat slouched in his seat almost the entire time. I doubt this had any bearing on anything, but I suspect it will be addressed if this case ever goes before a jury.
Afterward, Muir and Parks Miller both declined comment.
Also afterward, Sloane said he has video evidence that will bolster his case down the line. He also said that more charges may be brought against other Lions, and mentioned defensive tackle Phillip Taylor by name. He said the reason more players have not been charged already is because Baker named them in statements to police, and that if Baker is being tried at the same time he can claim fifth-amendment protection if asked to testify against others. He also said the DA's office may look to revoke Baker's bail. At the time of the alleged HUB fight, Baker was already free on bail in connection with another pending trial on felony charges.
From this angle, the DA's biggest challenge will be proving the attack on Capehart was so violent that it met the standard of aggravated assault. In basic terms, that means attacking someone in a way that might reasonably cause death or severe injury. I'm not sure I see that here. Though Capehart was bleeding and bruised, he walked away.
From this angle, the defense's biggest challenge will be refuting the eye witnesses who claim to have seen Bowman and Baker beating Capehart. Of the four men who testified Wednesday, three -- including Capehart -- were members or former members of the fraternity. But another was a custodian at the HUB, who does not appear to have a vested interest in the case one way or the other.
From this angle, the biggest challenge a jury will have (if it gets that far) is figuring out if this was a case of simple assault (not a felony) or aggravated assault (a felony). I doubt the DA is going to have trouble placing the accused men at the scene or getting a jury to believe they were involved in some sort of scuffle. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not so sure about the DA's ability to prove the altercation was serious enough to warrant felony convictions.
You can hear audio from Steve Sloane here: Listen Here.