Jurors can be told that a former LSU fraternity member accused in the September 2017 hazing death of Max Gruver deleted roughly 700 files from his phone shortly after a search warrant was issued for the device, the judge who signed the warrant ruled Wednesday.
State District Judge Beau Higginbotham’s decision came several hours after prosecutors charged 21-year-old Matthew Naquin with obstruction of justice for deleting those files on Nov. 8, 2017, the same day the judge approved the search warrant and ordered Naquin to preserve the contents of his phone.
Naquin, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, is scheduled to stand trial Monday on negligent homicide in the death of Gruver, 18. Naquin was indicted on that felony charge in early 2018. He also will be arraigned Monday on the felony obstruction of justice charge.
Naquin was under arrest when the phone files were deleted but he had not been named in an indictment. He was arrested in October 2017.
The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office last week asked Higginbotham to allow Naquin’s deletion of his phone files to be used as evidence at the negligent homicide trial. Investigators have been unable to retrieve the deleted information.
Prosecutor Morgan Johnson argued at a hearing Wednesday that Naquin’s deletion of the files is integral to her case. She called the deletion “incriminating acts” and “criminal behavior” after Gruver’s death.
“We have to present this to the jury. It shows guilty knowledge after the death of Max Gruver,” she told the judge. “The jury needs to know why we don’t have this information. Because he obstructed justice.”
Naquin’s lead attorney, John McLindon, argued the deletion occurred two months after Gruver died and added the files may have been deleted for personal reasons unrelated to the Gruver case.
“We don’t know what was on that phone,” McLindon said. “We don’t know why. Maybe there was something embarrassing in there.”
McLindon said telling the jury about the deletions will only prejudice them against his client.
Stephen Martinez, an investigator in the District Attorney’s Office, testified Wednesday that the data extraction report for Naquin’s phone indicates he received a call from McLindon on Nov. 8, 2017, at 3:13 p.m. The call lasted just over seven minutes. At 3:59 p.m., nearly 700 files were deleted from Naquin’s phone, Martinez said.
Prosecutors have said they have no information to suggest any wrongdoing on McLindon’s part.
In his ruling from the bench, Higginbotham noted that he signed the search warrant and preservation order, and the files were deleted “shortly thereafter.”
“What it was doesn’t matter,” he said.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said after the hearing that his office only learned of the mass deletion a week ago.
“We always thought there would be evidence one way or the other on the phone,” he said. “That information is very important. It surely shows guilty knowledge of something. That’s for the jury to decide.”
The bill of information that Johnson filed Wednesday charging Naquin with obstruction of justice accuses him of “tampering with evidence with the specific intent of distorting the results of any criminal investigation or proceeding ….”
Gruver, of Roswell, Georgia, died Sept. 14, 2017, of alcohol poisoning after a hazing ritual called “Bible study,” in which Phi Delta Theta pledges were required to chug hard liquor if they gave wrong answers to questions about the fraternity.
His blood-alcohol level was 0.495 percent, which is more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana. An autopsy also detected THC, the chemical found in marijuana, in his system.
Prosecutors have said multiple witnesses reported that Naquin targeted Gruver and was central to the hazing event.
Naquin's former LSU roommate, Ryan Matthew Isto, 20, of Butte, Montana, and ex-LSU student Sean-Paul Gott, 22, of Lafayette, pleaded no contest last year to misdemeanor hazing and agreed to testify at the trial. Another former LSU student charged with hazing, Patrick Andrew Forde, 22, of Westwood, Massachusetts, is cooperating with prosecutors and also will testify at the trial. Prosecutors said they’ll decide later whether to prosecute him.
Naquin faces up to five years in prison if convicted on negligent homicide.
Phi Delta Theta has been banned from LSU's campus until at least 2033 as a result of the probe into Gruver’s death.