Potential jurors called for the high-profile trial of a former LSU student accused in the 2017 alcohol-related hazing death of fraternity pledge Max Gruver were questioned Monday about their views on fraternity life, peer pressure, bullying, drinking, positions of authority and criminal negligence.

At the end of a grueling day, a six-person jury was chosen to decide whether Matthew Naquin is guilty of negligent homicide. Two alternate jurors were selected in the event one or more of the jurors cannot fulfill their obligations.

Opening statements from the prosecution and defense will be given Tuesday morning, and then the state will begin calling witnesses.

Naquin, 21, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, faces up to five years in prison if convicted in the Sept. 14, 2017, death of Gruver, 18, of Roswell, Georgia.

Some 100 prospective jurors filed into state District Judge Beau Higginbotham’s courtroom Monday morning for the day-long jury selection process.

Prosecutor Morgan Johnson and Naquin’s lead attorney, John McLindon, questioned the first panel of 14 potential jurors, and by mid-afternoon five of those 14 had been provisionally selected and the other nine were excused. The rest of the jury and the two alternate jurors had been picked by the evening.

Johnson asked the prospective jurors why they thought the Louisiana Legislature made hazing a crime.

“Because it happens and people get hurt,” one female juror replied, adding that peer pressure and the pressure to fit in or conform can be powerful. “People are influenced by others’ behavior. Peer pressure. It’s a lot of peer pressure.”

Another female juror said she thinks of the popular 1978 movie “Animal House” starring the late John Belushi when she hears mention of a fraternity.

“Craziness. A lot of drinking,” she said.

“I think they join these fraternities to party,” another male juror said, adding that some young people cut loose once they are no longer living with their parents.

Another older male juror said hazing at college campuses across the country is “totally out of hand.”

But a much younger prospective male juror came to the defense of fraternities, saying the good they do should not be ignored. He said fraternities perform off-campus community work and provide a lifetime of social connections to their members.

McLindon told the panel that “drinking doesn’t just go on in fraternities,” and he asked that whoever is picked for the jury bases their verdict on the evidence and “not on sympathy.”

Some jurors said a person can simply walk away from a hazing situation, but others said alcohol affects their ability to make good decisions.

A male juror who was ultimately excused said he was puzzled that only Naquin was charged with negligent homicide.

“I find it difficult that they could pin it on one individual. I thought it was instigated by an institution or organization,” he said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense having it come down to one individual.”

Prosecutors have said that multiple witnesses reported that Naquin targeted Gruver and was central to the hazing event. Some witnesses have also told investigators that Gruver drank excessively and used marijuana in the month he was at LSU. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled Saturday that the jury can hear evidence of Gruver’s alleged alcohol and drug use during that time.

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.

The names of Isto, Gott and Forde were on a list of potential witnesses that Johnson, the prosecutor, read in court Monday.

Before the start of jury selection Monday, Naquin pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice. That recently filed charge accuses him of deleting hundreds of files from his phone just hours after a state judge approved a search warrant for the phone on Nov. 8, 2017, and signed an order instructing Naquin to preserve the phone’s contents. Prosecutors said they’ll address the obstruction charge after the negligent homicide case is resolved.

Naquin was under arrest when the phone files were deleted but he had not been formally charged at that point. He was arrested in October 2017, and formally charged in early 2018.

Gruver died 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, authorities have said. His blood-alcohol level was 0.495 percent, which is more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana, an autopsy revealed.

The autopsy also detected THC, the chemical found in marijuana, in his system.

Court documents filed previously by prosecutors allege Naquin was adamant about not wanting Gruver in Phi Delta Theta, and that Naquin was warned by members of the fraternity — just days before Gruver died — to tone down his interactions with pledges. He was told his actions with pledges were extreme and dangerous, the documents allege. Higginbotham has ruled that prosecutors can use that evidence at Naquin’s trial.

McLindon told jurors they may hear 10 days of testimony.

“This is going to be a very gut-wrenching, emotional case,” he cautioned.

The parents of Naquin and Gruver were in the courtroom on opposite sides.

Phi Delta Theta has been banned from LSU's campus until at least 2033 as a result of the probe into Gruver’s death.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.