Allegations that LSU fraternity pledge Max Gruver voluntarily drank alcohol and used marijuana the night he died in 2017 can be used by Matthew Naquin's lawyers at his upcoming trial in Gruver's hazing death, an appeals court ruled Tuesday.

But any evidence that the 18-year-old Gruver consumed alcohol or smoked marijuana in the days and weeks before his death at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house on Sept. 14, 2017, cannot be presented to the jury, the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal said.

Naquin's lead attorney, John McLindon, said he'll ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the appellate court's decision. Naquin is scheduled to stand trial July 8 on negligent homicide.

State District Judge Beau Higginbotham had ruled in April, over the objections of Naquin's lawyers, that allegations that Gruver drank excessively and smoked marijuana in the four weeks before his death are inadmissible character evidence. The judge said a 30-day period is not sufficient to demonstrate Gruver had a substance abuse habit.

In its brief ruling Tuesday, the 1st Circuit said "evidence of the victim's drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana on the date in question prior to and while he was at the fraternity house does appear to be relevant to the crime at issue.

"With regard to the victim's alleged alcohol and marijuana use prior to the date in question, based on the evidence presented to this court, it does not appear that the district court erred in denying (Naquin's) motion at this time," the 1st Circuit wrote.

In a partial dissent, Circuit Judge Jewel "Duke" Welch called it essential for the jury to hear the entirety of the evidence "in order to ensure that (Naquin) receives a fair trial and is not deprived of his constitutional right to present a defense."

Welch said evidence regarding Gruver's alcohol and drug use over the 28 days he attended LSU prior to his tragic death "is relevant to the issue of whether the victim was forced or coerced to drink alcohol, or if he drank voluntarily on the night at issue."

Gruver, of Roswell, Georgia, died of alcohol poisoning following a hazing ritual dubbed “Bible study,” in which Phi Delta Theta pledges were required to chug hard liquor if they gave wrong answers to questions about the fraternity.

An autopsy showed his blood-alcohol level was 0.495%, more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana. The autopsy also detected THC, the chemical found in marijuana, in his system.

McLindon filed a motion in February that quotes fraternity members who described Gruver as a “party animal” who drank alcohol and smoked marijuana on a daily basis in the month he was on LSU’s campus and showed up high to the ill-fated hazing ritual.

Gruver's roommate stated in an interview that Gruver was "sober for maybe five of those nights" on the LSU campus, the court filing says. Another witness told the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office he often saw Gruver drunk, so he “did not think much of it when Max was laid out on the couch” following the hazing ritual, the filing states.

Naquin, 21, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, faces up to five years in prison if convicted of negligent homicide.

His former roommate at LSU, Ryan Matthew Isto, 19, of Butte, Montana, and ex-LSU student Sean-Paul Gott, 22, of Lafayette, pleaded no contest last fall to misdemeanor hazing in the Gruver case and agreed to testify at Naquin's trial.

Another former LSU student charged with hazing, Patrick Andrew Forde, 21, of Westwood, Massachusetts, has promised to cooperate with prosecutors and testify at the trial. Prosecutors have said they’ll decide later whether to prosecute Forde.

Phi Delta Theta has been banned from LSU's campus until at least 2033, following the probe into Gruver's death.


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