A former LSU student and ex-Phi Delta Theta member serving prison time for the 2017 hazing death of Max Gruver waived his right to appeal his negligent homicide conviction Tuesday, ending his more than two-year legal fight.
But some academics and legal experts say it's unlikely Matthew Naquin’s punishment will deter hazing on college campuses.
Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who tracks hazing deaths and has written several books on the topic, said at least one hazing death has occurred each year from 1959 to 2019.
“I’m hoping this is the first year in 61 years that we don’t have a hazing death, but I wouldn’t bet on it,” he said. “This is a really terrible string.”
Naquin, 21, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, was found guilty in July, sentenced to 2½ years in prison in November, and began serving his sentence Jan. 17. In exchange for waiving his right to appeal the verdict, prosecutors dropped an obstruction of justice charge against him Tuesday.
The obstruction charge, which carried up to five years in prison, accused Naquin of deleting hundreds of files from his phone during the criminal investigation into Gruver's death and after a search warrant had been issued for the phone.
Gruver, of Roswell, Georgia, died of alcohol poisoning and aspiration in what authorities described as a hazing ritual — dubbed "Bible study" — at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. Gruver and other Phi Delta Theta pledges were told to chug 190-proof liquor the night of Sept. 13 if they gave wrong answers to questions about the fraternity or could not recite the Greek alphabet.
Naquin was one of four former LSU students and ex-Phi Delta Theta members indicted on charges stemming from Gruver’s death. He faced the most serious charges.
Ryan Isto, Sean-Paul Gott and Patrick Forde were charged with misdemeanor hazing. Isto and Gott pleaded no contest in 2018 and were sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Prosecutors dropped the case against Forde last month, saying he gave them their “first real glimpse” into what happened the night Gruver died. Forde testified at Naquin's trial that he saw an obnoxiously loud Naquin hand Gruver a bottle of 190-proof liquor and order him to chug from it the night the freshman later died. But Forde said Naquin wasn’t the only Phi Delta Theta member who ordered pledges to drink alcohol that night.
Naquin is serving his sentence at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. He will be on probation for three years after his release.
Negligent homicide is not considered a crime of violence in Louisiana, so Naquin will be eligible to seek parole after serving 25% — or 7½ months — of his 30-month prison term. He could end up serving even less time than that if he completes certain classes and programs in prison.
The misdemeanor hazing charge to which Isto and Gott pleaded no contest carried up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $100, under the law in place at the time of the Gruver hazing.
LSU law professor Ken Levy feels that Naquin’s prison time, and the closure of Phi Delta Theta on LSU’s campus, will make fraternity members more reluctant to pressure pledges to drink, as Naquin did.
“It stands to reason this will have some deterrent effect. How long that will last, nobody knows,” he said.
Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans and a hazing expert witness, said he believes the Naquin case has had “no impact whatsoever” on the hazing culture nationally, and particularly at LSU, where hazing arrests have occurred even since Gruver’s alcohol-related death.
“It hasn’t changed any behavior. It’s the idea of invincibility — ‘it’s not going to happen to me,’” he said.
Last February, five months before Naquin went on trial, nine members of LSU's now-closed Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity were arrested on hazing counts. Arrest warrants said pledges were forced to lie down on broken glass while being urinated on, doused in gasoline, struck with pipes, burned with cigarettes and more.
Kimbrough calls the fight against hazing “the unwinnable war.”
“I have no idea what’s going to stop people from hazing. Jail doesn’t do it,” he said. “The students know that jail is a real possibility now, and it still hasn’t changed behavior, so I don’t know what will change that behavior.”
District Attorney Hillar Moore III believes it’s crucial to “get the word out in the high schools” and educate them about hazing.
“You can say no. You can stop this,” he said.
LSU is taking hazing “very seriously,” Moore said, but the culture of silence within Greek life is hampering witnesses from coming forward. He said more security cameras would help collect more evidence.
In 2018, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law the Max Gruver Act and other anti-hazing bills meant to curb hazing and increase penalties. Gruver’s parents were instrumental in the passage of the act bearing his name.
Under House Bill 78, which became the Gruver Act, people who participate in hazing activities that result in death when the victim's blood alcohol level is at least 0.30% would face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000. Hazing that doesn't lead to death would be subject to fines of up to $1,000 and six months in prison.
Organizations — fraternities, sororities, associations, social clubs, athletic teams and similar groups on college or high school campuses — that knowingly allow hazing could also face fines of up to $10,000.
Phi Delta Theta is banned from the LSU campus until at least 2033 as a result of the probe into the events leading to Gruver's death.
The district attorney applauded Gruver’s parents for their anti-hazing efforts since their 18-year-old son’s death. But he said they cannot do it alone.
“It’s going to take an enormous effort,” Moore added. “It’s going to be a tough battle to win.”
Moore said Tuesday that the investigation into Delta Kappa Epsilon following February’s hazing arrests is continuing. DKE's national organization had shut down the fraternity last January.
Arrest warrants suggested that a code of silence made DKE members too fearful to speak out. Formal charges have not been filed by prosecutors or a grand jury.