BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana lawmakers on Wednesday moved closer to making hazing that kills someone a felony crime, a measure urged by the parents of a Louisiana State University student who died after a hazing ritual last year.
The bill cleared a House criminal justice committee after hearing testimony from the parents of 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver, an LSU freshman who died with a blood alcohol content six times higher than the legal limit for driving. It now goes to the full House for debate.
“Imagine having your child taken away from you,” Rae Ann Gruver told the panel of legislators, her voice cracking as she described the night of heavy drinking that marked some of her son’s final hours. “We don’t want any other family to live through what we are living through. Our family is forever changed.”
Rep. Nancy Landry’s proposal would create a felony hazing charge of up to five years in prison levied when a victim dies or is seriously injured. The bill also would increase the current penalties for instances of hazing from up to 30 days in jail to a maximum of six months.
“We can’t bring Max back but we are hoping in the future we don’t have to bury any more people who want to join an organization,” said Landry, a Lafayette Republican.
Four people were indicted last week in connection with Gruver’s death. One man was charged with felony negligent homicide. The remaining three received misdemeanor hazing charges, a punishment that prosecutors have said is insufficient for the harm done in the case.
Fraternity members found Gruver, originally of Roswell, Georgia, lying on a couch and couldn’t tell if he was breathing after the night of drinking at the Phi Delta Theta house on LSU’s campus last September. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital. A coroner concluded that Gruver died of acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration, meaning he inhaled vomit and other fluid into his lungs.
Authorities said Gruver was singled out during a hazing ritual involving roughly 20 pledges because he was frequently late to events and was having trouble reciting the Greek alphabet during “Bible Study,” a test of fraternity knowledge.
One pledge, according to police, said Gruver was made to take about a dozen “pulls” of a 190-proof alcohol, while other pledges didn’t have to drink as much of the hard liquor. Some fraternity members had warned that the drinking was going too far, authorities had said.
LSU announced Wednesday that it rescinded the fraternity’s registration at the college, barring it from sponsoring events or soliciting new members until the end of 2032. Shortly after Gruver’s death, Phi Delta Theta said it was suspending operations at LSU.
If Landry’s bill becomes law, Louisiana will join at least 11 other states that have attached felony charges onto hazing when the act ends in death or serious injury, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures. Hazing deaths at other universities have led to criminal charges in states such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
Stephen Gruver, Maxwell’s father, said he thinks tougher penalties for hazing will help stop the practice. As he spoke to lawmakers, a photograph of his son was propped up on the desk in front of him.
“This bill is the deterrent that will make young adults and kids think twice before they participate in an event like hazing,” he said. “It’s exactly what we need.”
House Bill 78: www.legis.la.gov