CNN is reporting (an AP story) that four fraternity members pled guilty in the death of a college student who was “forced to drink large amounts of water during an initiation rite”. The judge in the case wanted to consider a torture charge with a potential life sentence. All four men will serve time, and the victim’s mother is “proud” that the men accepted responsibility.
The word “forced” caught my attention. Was 21 year old Matthew Carrington actually forced to drink five gallons of water and then perform calisthenics in a freezing basement? Forced seems to imply that a gun was held to his head, or that his life had been somehow threatened. But thus far I have yet to find a single report indicating that this took place.
It seems to me that a 21 year old “opted” to take part in a freakish initiation ceremony. No one held a gun to his head, and no one threatened his life. He wanted to join the Chi Tau fraternity. And even if he had no idea of the initiation ceremony in store for him, he still could have got up and left. But he didn’t.
A 21 year old is a legal adult in this country. 21 year olds (in every single state) can drink, drive, vote, get married, be subpoenaed … a 21 year old is an adult. And Matthew Carrington, a 21 year old adult, took part in an initiation ceremony that killed him. But he was not forced to do so. He made a choice, albeit a bad one, and paid with his life.
Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

30 thoughts

  1. This is the United States. For the most part, as a rule, personal responsibility has gone out the window. People sue fast food and win because they get fat only eating there. They sue coffee shops for serving coffee that is too hot. Etcetera, etcetera.
    If the kid had been actually murdered, the fraternity would lose its chapter, and the guys would have gotten 10-20 years in prison (but released in 3 for good behavior.)

  2. While I can’t speak from experience, I envisioned a handful of pledges drinking, with tons of fraternity brothers screaming "drink, drink, drink" in a fairly colorful / abusive manner. And the verbal abuse would increase when someone stops drinking.
    Is my envisioning in touch w/ reality, or just something I got from movies?
    Does verbal abuse (with words) count the same as physical abuse (with a gun)?
    Does the word "forced" in a single (?) news article really convey what actually happened, or is it a poor choice of wording on the writer?
    Do we have enough faith in the justice system to assume that the proper decision was made based on the available information? ( Can we assume that the judge / jury / whomever had a lot more information that we do )
    Just food for thought.

  3. Ben: I basically agree with your sentiments, but if you’ll pardon a bit of devil’s advocacy…
    (1) Forty-four states have anti-hazing laws, and the frats know about ’em. Should such laws be on the books? Perhaps not, but they are. The defendants were guilty of knowingly violating the law… when you get down to it, personal responsibility is a pie big enough for everyone to have a slice.
    (2) "Forced" can mean a lot of things. It might not have reached that point in this case, but it’s entirely possible for a sufficiently intense hazing ritual to lead to altered perceptions and impaired decision-making. A pledge may consent to being kept awake for 72 hours as part of an initiation, but his ability to provide meaningful consent to subsequent activity may be seriously damaged.
    (3) Chain of command is a factor. If someone is placed in your care, in a vulnerable position, then you become responsible for the situation. How responsible? That’s debatable, and probably a case-by-case judgment… but the guys running the show unquestionably bear _some_ responsibility for the festivities.

  4. Nothing happened to personal responsibility. These individuals were in a position of authority and used that authority to force him to drink five gallons of water. They are "personally responsible" for his death, and I hope they do time.
    "I/We didn’t hold a gun to his head" is very rarely a valid excuse in court. In the US, if you’re a bartender, and you knowingly serve someone large amounts of alcohol, and they drive drunk and kill someone, you better have a good lawyer.

  5. Nothing happened to personal responsibility? B.S.
    What authority did these guys actually have? They held the keys to membership at a fraternity. Thats it. If the kid stood up and walked away, what were they going to do besides perhaps not consider him for membership, or call him some names, and move on. This kid was getting intoxicated on water – he wasn’t losing his senses. He was stupid and did what was asked – as far as our knowledge of the details goes.
    If they taped a funnel to this kids mouth, tied him to a chair, and poured the water down his throat – yes. They were in control. If they merely chanted "drink, drink" and the kid did, he is as much responsible as those egging him on.

  6. "If they taped a funnel to this kids mouth, tied him to a chair, and poured the water down his throat – yes. They were in control. If they merely chanted "drink, drink" and the kid did, he is as much responsible as those egging him on."
    I’m not saying the victim was devoid of responsibility. But if they had the authority to deny him membership, then they were in a position of authority. This is de facto obvious. Now, then, lets discuss the legal concept of responsibility. If I encourage you to commit a crime, I am regarded as an accessory. I don’t have to say "unless you rob that bank, I will kill your dog", as a matter of fact, that exempts me from criminal responsibility, as I committed the crime under duress. The concept is very simple. I don’t have to put a gun to your head, if I encourage someone to do something that results in their injury or death, I’m held responsible. If they had held him down and forced the water down his throat they would be facing murder charges.
    This is not the first case of this kind, I don’t see why it’s even an issue, it should be clear and obvious to anyone having a passing familiarity with moral philosophy or criminal case law.

  7. Jim, I don’t really understand your position because if the dead dude was actually asked to perform a russian roulette or walk through fire or jump off a roof, would he have done it?
    We should stop finding excuses for someone’s stupid mistakes. People can be really stupid.
    This kind of frivolous lawsuits can only happen in America because IMHO if it happens anywhere in EU, apart from the initial investigations whether he was murdered, the dude would have been forgotten by now.
    As adults, people should be responsible for their actions and should be SMART enough to hold their own when been abused or influenced to do wrong.

  8. I’ve tried to explain, this is not my personal opinion, it’s objective fact, U.S. law. I could care less what should or would be the case, I’m part of the "reality-based community". After a certain point it’s like trying to teach algebra to dogs, so I give up. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

  9. Having studied some law myself, I have to agree with Jim 100%.
    In regards to responsibility; as Roger pointed out, hazing is against the law in 44 states (including California) and "Negligence per se" establishes liability. That is, a person or entity may be declared liable by a court if it is proven that they broke the law regardless of it being known or intended.
    So because the fraternity was breaking the law, they where deemed liable for the accident and because the death was an accident the defendants where charged with manslaughter and not murder.
    Adedeji, to clarify; this was a criminal trial not a civil trial. While there is no legal definition that describes what a frivolous lawsuit is (that I am aware of), they generally deal with civil trials where a plaintiff is seeking compensation for damages. This case was a criminal trial and has nothing to do with a monetary award.
    Legalities aside, personally I would have felt responsible for his death.
    -erik

  10. Erik, thanks for the clear way you have made this known to everyone. I am not a lawyer, which makes me, alongside a lot of other people, to get very emotional when issues like this come up. We sometimes forget the law could be very hard, blunt and cold.
    However, law is law. The best way not to get into trouble is probably to know as much as possible and live as reasonably as possible. I know America has a lot of landmark judgments that have changed the face of personal responsibilities for life.
    What annoys me however is the way people react negatively when others don’t share their opinions.
    See the mail Jim sent to me.
    ****************
    Should, would, whatever. Its not MY position you dumbass, it’s the law
    of the land (US) and Im tired of trying to teach algebra to dogs. if
    you dumbasses dont see my point by now im wasting my time. If you
    encourage someone to commit a crime or harm themselves you share
    guilt. law of the land. period. done.
    BTW Its not a lawsuit dumbass it’s a criminal charge. Im arguing with
    someone that cant read. great.
    ****************
    At least, there is no law that says I must agree with whatever anyone says. The purpose of arguments and forums like this is for everyone to state their points so that they could learn from others and others learn from them too.
    I am not ashamed to show my legal ignorance because I don’t know much about law. And if I keep my mouth shut, how will I learn from people like Erik? You only think you know much until someone who knows better starts talking.

  11. I look at this as more like ‘natural selection’. The frat was merely helping to thin the herd.
    I mean, anyone who would voluntarily subject themseleves to ‘hazing’ to be part of a social group is obviously not swimming in the deep end of the gene pool.
    I don’t like the precedent this case sets. Soon, we will see alot more criminal or civil cases against TV and movie studios and video game manufacturers because it could be argued that they ‘encouraged’ someone to do something.
    I understand the law, I just don’t agree with it.

  12. Yep, personal reponsibility HAS gone out the window. I think it’s terrible that people are allowed to:
    1) Sue fraternities for inculcating an environment where things like this are allowed/encouraged,
    2) Blame drug companies for poorly tested products that cause heart damage
    3) Sue automakers for dangerous vehicles
    4) Sue physicians for malpractice.
    Nothing bad along these lines has ever happened to ME or anyone I know, so I believe that anyone who tries to assert their "rights" in a court of law is just a whiny wimp. Grow a spine, people!

  13. Jim, You are obviously a Democrat – always looking to blame someone rather than take responsibility. This frat-boy-wanna-be decided to be a part of the initiation. Instead of using some common sense, he followed like a sheep and ended up paying with his life. Get one of your own and step back. As several others have mentioned, no one forced this guy to do this, he did it of his own free will. Fortunately idiots like this weed themselves out of the gene pool. Perhaps you, too, would like a drink– or are you smart enough to know that I, nor anyone else, can not force you to do something like this?

  14. Jim, Jared, and others …
    I think you are missing the point. Whether or not goading and encouraging met the legal definition of involuntary manslaughter is not the issue. Legal does not mean right, just as illegal does not mean wrong. If something is legal then it is permissible, if illegal then not permissible. And there are actions that, while legal, are wrong. Just as there are actions that, while illegal, are not wrong. The proof of this is the fact that laws (and thus what is legal and what is not) change. Laws are appealed and repealed, judgments are overturned, laws change. Legality is what the state considers permissible or not permissible at a given point in time. Hazing may in fact be illegal. And whether or not it should be is a separate discussion. But I was not commenting on legality.
    The issue here is responsibility. And as this case demonstrates (yet again), there is an unhealthy need in this country to hold someone, anyone, accountable. Be it for balancing a cup of boiling coffee on your lap while driving (Stella Liebeck in 1992), or getting killed in a car crash when speeding in a snowstorm and not wearing a seatbelt (Derrick Thomas in 2004), or for getting struck by lightening at an amusement park (Shawn Perkins in 2003 who sued Paramount Kings Island), or for eating too much (Caesar Barber in 2003 who tried to sue McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC), or for living in a storage facility and getting locked in for 63 days (Wanda Hudson in 2003) … and yes, I know the difference between criminal and civil cases.
    Pointing fingers elsewhere, and refusing to accept responsibility, has become the norm. And that’s what I was commenting on.
    — Ben

  15. This is an interesting topic. I believe the 21 year old in question should have been responsible for himself, no doubt about it.
    On the other hand, when you’re drunk, it becomes harder to make decisions, and pure pressure is even harder to handle than it usually is, so sombody should have stepped up and get him to stop drinking after a while… I’ve told people to stop drinking in the past, and they thanked me for it (the next morning).
    I think both parties are responsible here.

  16. Andre – Following your logic, it is a bartender or store clerk who should be charged with DWI, not the person who drank the alcohol.
    It was this person’s need to be accpeted by the frat that caused his death…maybe we should also charge his parents…I mean, if they had filled him with enough self-confidence as a child, then he would not have felt such a strong need to be accepted.
    Hell, while we are at it, why not charge the college for allowing the frat to exist in the first place?
    I am sure if there was a way, someone would try to sue God for creating water in the first place. (Because, you know, if we didn’t have water, this nim-rod would not have died).
    It’s called thinning the herd.

  17. Andre, the person died from drinking water; as far as I know there was no mention of alcohol consumption.
    Scott: If someone drinks at my house and gets into an accident on the way home, I can be liable for damages, deaths, etc… why would it be different for a bartender (or more likely, the bar owner).
    As far as the store-clerk, I think it is slightly different because the customer is most likely not drinking in the store, and is probably not drunk, or intoxicated, when purchasing the said goods.
    ( IANAL )

  18. Jeff – Just because you could be held liable for any deaths, damages, etc. if you serve alcohol to someone who then gets into an accident, that does not make it right. (Unless you put a gun to their head and forced them to drink).
    I was trying to follow this train of thought to the ultimate illogical conclusion.
    I personally think that holding another person/establishment responsible for actions an adult took on their own, not under duress, is ridiculous.
    Once again, its called thinning the herd. This guy was obviously an idiot….the gene pool thanx him.

  19. 😉 I forgot which of us are discussing "right vs wrong" and which of us are discussing "legal vs illegal."
    I think that there ways to force people to do things other than "holding a gun to their head". I do not know if any of those ways took place in this incident.

  20. Jeff and Scott,
    I just realised that we’re talking about drinking WATER here! This whole time I thought that the guy died from drinking too much alchool…
    This changes my opinion…. Water is a whole different thing! I agree with you, it was stupid to drink that much water. The other guys should not be held responsible.

  21. Ben, since you clearly framed this question in terms of legality…
    ———————-
    A 21 year old is a legal adult in this country. 21 year olds (in every single state) can drink, drive, vote, get married, be subpoenaed … a 21 year old is an adult.
    ———————-
    He was a legal adult, but that doesn’t mean the other people involved didn’t commit manslaughter.
    He wasn’t forced to do anything, however since he didn’t do it alone, and it was negligent on the part of those around him to allow / encourage him to (of his free will) drink the water, this extends beyond Personal Responsiblity. They pick up responsibility through their involvement. If they didn’t want to be held legally accountable, they shouldn’t have been involved. Much like this post and your blog.

  22. By the logic of some of the people on this thread, Charles Manson should be free as a bird, after all, he personally never killed anyone, he merely influenced others to kill. He didn’t put a gun to their head and force them to kill. The actual killers should bear full responsibility.

  23. Jim – That is not an accuarte analogy. Manson had ‘brain washed’ his followers.
    ‘Brain washing’ is a far cry from telling someone they need to drink 5 gallons of water in order to accepted into a social club.
    The problem I have with this issue is once you start down the road of assigning blame, where do you stop?
    Following the logic that others are responsible for this idiot’s death, the following could be argued:
    The college holds some responsibility for allowing the frat to exist.
    The National chapter of the frat holds some responsibility because they were not over seeing this chapters ‘initiation’ practices.
    The water company holds some responsibility because they supplied the water.
    The plumber who installed the pipes in the building where this occured holds some responsibility because they supplied a way for water to get to the building.
    This can be carried out to the nth degree, and to be honest with the way things are going in the US, I don’t think some of those things are too far fetched.

  24. The guy died. Isn’t that personally responsible enough for you? I’d think that was the ultimate in personal responsibility.
    The dead guy had no reason to expect that what he was being asked to do would kill him; the guys doing the encouraging probably didn’t think that what they were asking would kill him. Still, he died. They contributed to his death. They are also responsible. This is not a new concept in the law.

  25. It seems like Ben Forta and a bunch of you are some murderer’s best friends. I think any murderer would be exstatic to have some of you on their juries.
    Personal responsibility means serving time for your crimes, period. You people are making the weirdest excuses for criminal behavior I’ve ever seen!
    They’re murderers! Why allow them to evade their personal responsibility?!
    Don

  26. I wonder if those of your who keep calling the guy who died a moron, an idiot and a waste of good genetic material would be so blythe and cavalier saying these things to his mom or dad.
    Without a doubt he did a stupid thing and paid for it with his life. Those that helped/encouraged him did a stupid thing as well.
    I would be quite shocked if all of us contributing to this rant haven’t done a number of stupid things in our lives as well. Things that in certain circumstances couldn’t have resulted in serious injury or death. It isn’t always because we’re so much smarter or wiser than others, we’re just lucky as hell.
    So, yeah the guy did something dumb, but have a bit of compassion. He died. There, but for the grace of God go I.

  27. Ben,
    I agree with you regarding personal responsibility. However, this particular debate is missing one vital piece of information that may change some opinions on whether the frat boys should be charged with a crime.
    Once Matthew Carrington collapsed, no fraternity members called an ambulance. In fact when someone first tried to call an ambulance, they were prevented. They left him laying in vomit and sewage. Had he gotten prompt medical attention, he likely would not have died.
    The fraternity members are culpable.

  28. It is obvious to me that this website is nothing short of a second-rate opinion page, and very far from being scholarly.
    The fraternity members LET IT HAPPEN. End of story. It should never have gotten that far in the first place, but the alumni support it. Bit of news for you too, are you aware that the previous year (at that same fraternity) a father was present for the hazing of his own son? Nothing happened to personal responsibility—-EVERYTHING changed with regards to personal morals and values—-the fraternity brothers obviously had none at the time!

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