The criminal trial involving Kappas from Florida A&M University that produced the nation’s first felony convictions for hazing will now be followed by a civil trial. The victim, Marcus Jones, is suing the same five fraternity members named in the criminal case. The national,regional and local chapters of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity also face a potentially multi-million dollar liability.
Local newspapers mistakenly reported that Jones was only seeking $15,000. But Jones’s attorney, Dawn Whitehurst, explained that she and Jones just stated that figure to ensure that the case is not tried on small claims court. “We intend to seek much larger damages than that,” she said, noting that in 2004 a FAMU band member who was hazed won a judgment of $1.8 million.
“Now that time has gone by, it’s clear that Marcus is suffering from a lot more than just what happened on line,” Whitehurst said. “He had to withdraw from school and forfeited his scholarship. He lost many of his college friends and he will never reach his dream of graduating from FAMU or becoming a member of the fraternity.” Jones had to leave campus and is receiving psychotherapy for anxiety and depression.
Both sides have declared that the civil case will be much different than the criminal trial. “Now Marcus’ consent will be an issue,” says Chuck Hobbs, who defended the frat brothers in the criminal case and will now represent the three who are not in prison. “Florida law, like many jurisdictions, utilizes a ‘Comparative Negligence’ standard which requires that a jury consider what role the plaintiff may have had in causing his or her injuries.
“A jury will have to consider the fact that,” Hobbs says. “Mr. Jones broke his written promise not to meet outside of the presence of an advisor, not to participate in any hazing activities, and that he was not under duress, meaning that he was not forced to submit to any caning, or paddling.”
Dr. Walter Kimbrough, a leading researcher on Black fraternity hazing, says that Hobbs is completely wrong about Marcus being under duress. He notes that “the entire pledge process is deliberately designed to brainwash pledges and put them under tremendous psychological pressure to conform to what the group wants them to do. That’s why pledges are nearly always blindfolded and beaten, never told the truth about when the process will actually be over, and punished as a group if one person fails or resists.”
Several Kappa officials refused to comment. However, one national officer who asked not to be identified predicted a quiet out-of-court settlement. “We’re between a rock and a hard place,” he said, “If we lose, Kappa pays big dollars. If we win this time, it sends the message that hazing is OK because some pledge consented. I’m glad Florida made hazing a felony. Maybe the sight of those two FAMU brothers being taken to prison in handcuffs will finally change some minds about this.”
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