Max Gruver was one of four fraternity pledges to die in an American college in 2017 after a night of coerced drinking.
The liquors that killed the pledges ranged from Everclear to Wild Turkey bourbon; their blood-alcohol levels ranging from four to six times the legal limit.
But what came nearly two years after Gruver’s death now sets his case apart from the others, as a Baton Rouge jury this week convicted former LSU student and Phi Delta Theta member Matthew Naquin on a charge of negligent homicide.
It’s the only case from that year that has resulted in a felony criminal conviction for a fraternity member accused of hazing. And more broadly, it’s rare for prosecutors to secure convictions on any charge more serious than misdemeanor hazing, according to attorneys and academics from around the country who track hazing cases.
“I can count on one hand those kinds of convictions,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University and a hazing expert witness. “This isn’t over yet because we need to see what the sentencing is going to be. Am I saying ‘Make an example out of him? Yes, I am.”
Naquin, 21, faces a sentence that could range from probation to five years in prison. His attorney, John McLindon, said he is still stunned by the result and plans to appeal. Naquin also still faces obstruction of justice charges for allegedly deleting phone files related to Gruver’s death.
Naquin’s conviction demonstrated what experts say is a shift in the mindsets of prosecutors and the public about hazing: District attorneys are now pursuing more aggressive charges in such cases than they have in the past, while the frequency of hazing deaths on campuses has made the public impatient for justice. “Boys will be boys” arguments have been overtaken by fears that parents who send their son to college could also endure the Gruvers’ grief.
In the past, it’s often been impossible to “break through the coordinated silence and lies of fraternity members in order to get the true story of what happened,” said Douglas Fierberg, a leading attorney in hazing cases around the country who is representing the Gruver family in a civil suit against LSU and the national Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether Naquin’s conviction is enough to make a dent in the culture of hazing at LSU’s fraternities. Gruver’s death came two years after the death of another LSU fraternity member, Praneet Karki, whose Beta Kappa Gamma fraternity was kicked off campus and found responsible for hazing, complicity and endangerment.
Neither of their deaths seem to have inspired LSU fraternities to follow their better angels. Two more fraternities were kicked off LSU’s campus this year, with allegations that pledges were doused in gasoline, forced to drink, and above all, ordered to remain silent.
As more than 40 witnesses testified during Naquin’s trial, a handful of exchanges lingered with those who watched. As Phi Delta Theta members took the stand, they said repeatedly that they were unfamiliar with alumni advisers, their house mother and other non-college students meant to oversee the fraternity. They also testified about drinking on LSU’s parade grounds during football games, having leftover Everclear from tailgating.
“So much of the testimony gives the family greater insight behind the fraternity curtain,” said Fierberg, whose law firm is based in Washington, D.C. “Without adequate supervision or even fraternities and universities telling the truth about the risks, young men will continue to die.”
Lane Ewing, a former assistant U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s Middle District, is also helping to represent the Gruvers in their civil case. He noted that the burden of proof prosecutors had to reach in the criminal case was higher than the burden in a civil case, saying “it’s a pretty good indicator of what our success could be in a civil case.”
David Westol, who runs an Indiana-based consulting firm for Greek organizations, said he was struck by testimony that other fraternity members tried to prevent Naquin’s actions. Westol frequently lectures about hazing, and said he hopes more fraternity members will take action when they see it.
Philip Clark, the former Phi Delta Theta pledge educator, testified that he told Naquin two days before Gruver’s death to tone down his interactions with pledges after he saw Naquin shooting them with an airsoft pistol. And LSU student Arthur Chassaignac testified that he emptied bottles of 190-proof liquor Naquin carried on the night Gruver died and filled them with water instead.
“It’s not the first time someone is convicted, but it reflects a change – he was warned by other members to stop and slow down,” Westol said.
Others were impressed that East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III’s office pursued negligent homicide charges against Naquin to begin with. Jonathon Fazzola, an attorney with Fierberg’s firm, said other district attorneys should follow their example.
“It’s really been up to the prosecutors all along,” said David Bianchi, a Florida-based attorney who represents the family of a Florida State University pledge who died the same year as Gruver.
“You don’t specifically need a hazing statute on the books to criminally prosecute for hazing, because there are other statutes you can use,” Bianchi added. “It’s an attitude, it’s a mentality.”
Moore said his office did not necessarily set out to secure a felony conviction, but that the evidence they amassed over time warranted one. Still, he added that no verdict could bring back Gruver.
But having stronger hazing statutes helps. The Louisiana Legislature has rewritten its hazing laws since Gruver’s death, passing the “Max Gruver Act,” which redefined criminal hazing and stiffened potential fines and jail time. The new laws make national fraternities more liable for not acting on hazing allegations, and they include a “duty to assist” statute to require people at scenes of emergencies to seek help. LSU also adopted a medical amnesty policy last year that allows students to avoid university consequences for alcohol and drug violations if they call 911.
Moore’s office could not try Naquin under the new laws, which only came after Gruver’s death.
“What the prosecution was able to do was use a non-specific statute to pursue a felony in a very bad hazing case,” said Sean Callan, an attorney with Ohio-based Fraternal Law Partners. “That was not typically done, that was why these new laws were put in place, because the existing statutory framework wasn’t specific.”
The lack of specificity may partly explain why fraternity members in other states have faced less severe criminal consequences for hazing deaths. When Timothy Piazza died in 2017 after being forced to drink and falling down the stairs at his Penn State fraternity, prosecutors made national headlines when they charged members with involuntary manslaughter.
But several ended up pleading guilty to hazing misdemeanors instead, and others still face trial. None have faced more than a few months in jail. Pennsylvania also stiffened its hazing laws after Piazza’s death, including the addition of a felony aggravated hazing law.
Kimbrough pointed out the contrast in the Penn State sentencing with that of two well-known hazing cases at Florida A&M University. In 2011, the FAMU band’s drum major died during a ritual in which band members hit one another with musical instruments, drumsticks and their hands.
Florida juries convicted several band members on charges of manslaughter and felony hazing. One was sentenced to 77 months in prison, another to 48 months, and others received probation.
And in another Florida A&M fraternity hazing case from 2006, two students were sentenced under Florida’s felony hazing laws and served two years in prison apiece before their convictions were overturned. The victim, in that case, needed surgery to correct his injuries.
In Baton Rouge, several Southern University band members were sentenced to probation in 2009 after pleading no contest to criminal conspiracy to commit second-degree battery and misdemeanor hazing. They were accused of striking band members with 2×4 boards during an unsanctioned initiation, which led to hospitalizations but no deaths.
In a more recent Florida hazing case, several Florida State fraternity members were charged with third-degree felony hazing after Andrew Coffey died in 2017. But most later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor hazing.
After the 2017 death of Texas State University fraternity pledge Matthew Ellis, a fraternity member pleaded guilty to furnishing alcohol to a minor, a misdemeanor.
Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who tracks hazing deaths and has written several books on the subject, said the toll from hazing is now at least at one death a year annually from 1959 to 2019.
Nuwer said Naquin’s conviction shows “part of an increasing intolerance by the public, legislators and courts for intolerable hazing acts.” It’s debatable whether that intolerance extends to fraternity members themselves.
“I sure hope so, but I have thought that for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to change the behavior,” said Bianchi. “It’s almost hard to believe that in this day and age there can be as much fraternity hazing as there is.”