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Five years later: An inside look at Matt's Law


Matthew Carrington died more than five years ago, but people continue to remember him, his story and Matt’s Law.

Carrington died Feb. 2, 2005, from water intoxication during a hazing ritual in the basement of the Chi Tau house, an unrecognized fraternity at Chico State.

As a result of his death, Carrington’s mother, Debbie Smith, decided to create a law that would protect students from being hazed, she said.


It didn’t take long after Carrington’s death for Smith to come up with the idea for Matt’s Law, she said.

Carrington died on a Wednesday and by Thursday evening “a light went off” and she knew there needed to be a law, Smith said. By Saturday she had spoken to an attorney.

“There’s a problem with the way the laws are written,” she said.

However, she did not do anything until her attorney, Alex Grab, brought up the idea of implementing a hazing law sometime in June, Smith said. Soon after talking about it, they began to move forward.

One of the advocates for Matt’s Law was Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

Carrington’s case had a big impact on Ramsey, because he had a friend die from hazing, he said.

Ramsey served as a resource for Sen. Tom Torlakson, who introduced Senate Bill 1454 or Matt’s Law as it is more commonly known, he said.

After passing by the Senate and Assembly, the bill was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Sept. 29, 2006.

Matt’s Law moved hazing from the Education Code to the Penal Code and people could be charged with a felony if someone is seriously injured, according to the bill. It also allows for a person to bring a civil action lawsuit against individuals and organizations.

“It’s not a minor offense that will get you suspended from school,” Ramsey said.

Offenders could end up in prison, he said.

Matt’s Law has been applied in two cases since it was passed.

Cases tried under Matt’s Law

The first case to be tried under Matt’s Law involved Chico State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity, according to an article by the Chico News & Review. Chico State students Christopher Bizot, Michael Murphy and Butte College student Matthew Krupp, were accused of hazing pledges just seven blocks from where Carrington died.

Although the pledges involved admit to being submerged in water, they said they never feared for their lives and the jury acquitted the three members of the misdemeanor charges, according to the television station KHSL’s Web site.

The most recent case came after the death of Carson Starkey, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student.

Starkey, 18, died Dec. 2, 2008, after a hazing ritual by members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, according to a press release by the San Luis Obispo Police Department. He was instructed to consume a large amount of alcohol in one and a half hours.

Sometime during the ritual, Starkey became unresponsive and Sigma Alpha Epsilon members decided to drive him to a hospital, police said. They assumed he would be fine after he vomited in the car and turned back. More than four hours later, Starkey was found unresponsive by a Sigma Alpha Epsilon member and was pronounced dead at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.

Starkey died of respiratory arrest due to alcohol poisoning, police said. Analysis of Carson’s blood, vitreous humor and urine revealed a blood alcohol content ranging from .39 to .45 percent.

The case, which is still ongoing, was filed Sept. 22, 2009, to coincide with the beginning of the school year to allow incoming students to be aware of what happened, said Ivo Labar, a lawyer representing the Starkeys who helped draft Matt's Law.

Haithem Ibrahim and Zachary Ellis are being charged with felony hazing causing death and misdemeanor furnishing of alcohol to a minor causing death, according to an article by The Mustang Daily. Fraternity members Adam Marszel and Russell Taylor pled not guilty to both charges.

Nine former members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the national Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are being sued for wrongful death by Starkey’s parents, according to The Mustang Daily. However, a date for the trial will not be set until March 18, to avoid conflict with the criminal trial, which is ongoing.

The outcome

Despite wide support from the community, there are still questions about how effective Matt’s Law is and what its purpose is.

Before the first case under Matt’s Law, Richard Ek, then-retired journalism professor, said the case against members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity would be a waste of time and money and would trivialize Matt’s Law, according to the Chico News & Review. After the trial, a member of the jury agreed with him.

Greek Adviser Larry Bassow credits a revamp after Carrington’s death by administration and Greek advisers for the turnaround at Chico State, not Matt’s Law, he said.

“The D.A. tried one case and failed,” Bassow said. “I don’t know, has it reduced hazing?”

However, Ramsey thinks it has made some difference, he said.

Like any new law, there will be a decrease in incidents, Ramsey said. From what he has heard, there has been a downturn in hazing cases.

Initially, when Smith thought about creating Matt’s Law, she didn’t want there to be a need to use it, she said. It was more so students would be deterred from hazing because it is illegal and they would be held accountable.

With the recent Starkey case, Smith thinks the purpose of Matt’s Law was unsuccessful, she said.

“It makes me sad and makes me feel like we failed,” Smith said. “The whole idea is for them to get a clue.”

The Starkey case will be the first time Matt’s Law is being used in a felony situation, she said.

The effect of Matt's Law on the Greek System in Chico
Matt’s Law hasn’t had much of an impact at Chico State, Bassow said. It was the death of Carrington that had the impact on the Greek community.

“We supported Matt’s Law, but we revamped way before Matt’s Law,” he said.

After Carrington’s death, there was a call for a review of the Greek system by President Paul Zingg, according to the Greek System Review Task Force Report. From 2004 to 2005, a traffic fatality after a fraternity event, the near-death alcohol poisoning of a fraternity pledge, the death of Carrington and the filming of a pornographic movie at a fraternity house left Zingg with little choice but to issue an ultimatum to the Greek system and charge four task forces with making recommendations for change.

Zingg addressed about 1,000 students April 12, 2005, to tell them about changes that needed to be made, according to the report. If they did not live up to the standards, they would not be welcome at Chico State.

Since then, there has been a turnaround and Greeks are held accountable for any misconduct, Bassow said.

The hope is that students know what to do because it’s the right thing to do, not because they fear punishment, he said.

“If we had our stuff together then Matt’s Law shouldn’t be an issue, that’s my hope,” Bassow said. “If that’s not the case, then there’s Matt’s Law.”

Unaware of Matt’s Law, sophomore Kevin Mandrup, a Theta Chi member, thinks Greeks at Chico State are ahead of the rest, he said. They have done several leadership conferences and have learned about proper ways of pledging.

“I don’t know exactly what they did five years ago,” Mandrup said. “But now there’s nothing near to what it was like.”

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