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FAMU Kappas’ First To Face Felony Hazing

FAMU Kappas’ First To Face Felony Hazing
Charges Under New Florida Law

By Paul Ruffins

A Florida hazing trial that had profound implications for the future of fraternities, pledges and universities, ended in mistrial last month after the jury deadlocked over whether pledge Marcus Jones’s injuries constituted serious bodily harm.

The criminal trial of five members of Florida A&M University’s Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity was the first hazing case prosecuted under a 2005 Florida law that made hazing a third-class felony if it resulted in death or “serious bodily injury.”

The defendants, expected to be retried in December, face up to five years in prison. But the increased penalties are possibly not the most noteworthy feature of the new statute. Under the law, individuals facing hazing charges can no longer turn to the long-accepted argument that hazing does not constitute a criminal assault because the victim is a willing participant.

While the higher stakes of felony charges make the legal aspects of the case groundbreaking, the details of the hazing are identical to numerous other incidents involving Blacks fraternities and sororities.

In late February 2005, FAMU’s Alpha Xi Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi began an underground hazing process for initiating 26 pledges. According to police reports, “the pledges … participated in several rituals where the line got hit with canes, and each person got three licks each time it was their turn to get hit.” Over four nights, the pledges were also punched and beaten with two-by-fours. 

Jones estimated that one night he was caned more than 90 times. When he raised concerns that he was losing too much blood, fraternity brothers told him not to seek medical care because the hazing would be exposed. In desperation, he drove 273 miles home to Decatur, Ga., where his parents rushed him to the hospital. Jones, who had suffered a ruptured eardrum and had lost a half-pint of blood, spent two days in the hospital. His injured right buttocks required a drainage tube and 25 stitches.

“He really didn’t want to come forward and let the guys down. He didn’t blow the whistle; I did,” says Mark Jones, the pledge’s father, who is also a Kappa.

He calls FAMU’s culture of hazing pervasive and criticized the school for not banning the fraternity. A former FAMU marching band member won a $1.8 million verdict in a civil battery suit against five band members for a 2001 hazing incident in which he was beaten so badly his kidneys shut down. That student settled with FAMU for an undisclosed amount. 

After Marcus Jones’ injuries became known, the Leon County Sheriff’s Office arrested Brian Bowman, Corey Gray, Jason Harris, Marcus Hughes and Michael Morton. At the time, Gray was president of FAMU’s National Pan-Hellenic Council, and Morton was a former president of the FAMU Senate. The university issued a cease and desist order, suspended the chapter for seven years and suspended the students indefinitely. Two seniors who were prevented from finishing their coursework and graduating unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit demanding to be able to complete their studies.

The FAMU Kappas were the first to be charged with hazing under a 2005 Florida law named for Chad Meredith, a University of Miami student who died in 2001 while trying to swim across alligator-infested Lake Osceola with two members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. Police never filed charges, but a civil court ruled that the fraternity brothers had to pay Meredith’s parents $12.6 million.

The jury’s failure to reach a verdict in the FAMU case has caused tremendous concern among anti-hazing activists such as Dr. Susan Lipkins, the author of Preventing Hazing. She argues that if a teacher or police officer had beaten a student that badly, it certainly would have been considered serious bodily injury.

“If the retrial ends in a not guilty verdict,” she says, “it will send people the very dangerous message that hazardous hazing is very difficult to prove, and, therefore, it will continue to thrive in Florida and everywhere else.”

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