There was no single blow, stomp or strike to Robert Champion’s bruised and battered body that killed him as he was pummeled by fellow Florida A&M University marching band members during a hazing ritual aboard a charter bus last fall.
Instead, the gay student’s death was caused by multiple blows from many individuals. That inability to pinpoint which blow ultimately caused the 26-year-old drum major’s death led authorities to charge 13 defendants this week with hazing rather than more serious counts like manslaughter or second-degree murder.
“His death is not linked to one sole strike but it is attributed to multiple blows,” said Orlando area State Attorney Lawson Lamar at a news conference announcing the charges.
The most sensational cases of hazing – or endurance rituals for new members of an organization – have typically involved fraternities, sororities or athletic teams, but the FAMU tragedy in November exposed a brutal tradition among marching bands at some colleges around the United States.
Champion’s death has jeopardized the future of FAMU’s legendary marching band, which has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations and Super Bowls and represented the United States in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. FAMU, based in Tallahassee, has suspended the band and set up a task force on curtailing hazing.
Champion’s mother, Pam, said May 3 that the only way to stop hazing in FAMU’s marching band is to disband the program until the root of the hazing problem is addressed.
“You’ve got to clean house,” Pam Champion said in Atlanta. “That’s the only thing.”
Champion’s father, Robert Champion Sr., added: “The band should not be on the field until they clean house. Until they get it completely clean. There are 400 other students who are also in the band, and the same thing can happen to them.”
Some legal experts said they believe Lamar could have filed manslaughter, or even second-degree murder counts, against the participants who conducted the hazing after the FAMU marching band had performed at a football game against its rival school.
“The prosecutor in this case had an opportunity to do something, to send a stronger message, a deserved message based on the conduct,” said Tamara Lave, a University of Miami law professor. “And the prosecutor didn’t.”
Lamar said his office didn’t have the evidence to bring more serious charges.
“The testimony obtained to date does not support a charge of murder, in that it does not contain the elements of murder,” he said. “We can prove participation in hazing and a death. We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion. It is an aggregation of things which exactly fit the Florida statute as written by the Legislature.”
Champion’s family and their attorney said they were extremely disappointed that murder charges were not filed.
“Here while all eyes are on Florida was the opportunity to set the stage and say, ‘This won’t be accepted,’” Pam Champion said.
“I was not happy with felony hazing charges. That word, hazing, just doesn’t fit it.”
Eleven defendants were charged with hazing resulting in death, a felony, and misdemeanor offenses that all together could bring nearly six years in prison. Two others face misdemeanor charges.
It was not immediately clear whether those charged were all students or whether they included faculty members or others involved in the road trip.
Their names were being withheld until all of them were arrested, but authorities around the state were starting to take them into custody. Two men – 23-year-old Caleb Jackson and 24-year-old Rikki Wills – were arrested on May 2 in Leon County. Wills was allowed to leave jail that night after posting a $15,000 bond.
Brian Jones turned himself in on May 2 in Hillsborough County. He was released after posting a $15,000 bond. His attorney, Alisia Adamson, said he would plead not guilty.
A Leon County, however, refused May 3 to let Jackson leave jail because he’s already on probation for battery.
Other defendants who had turned themselves in by May 3 afternoon were: Jesse Baskin, 20, and Benjamin McNamee, Shawn Turner, 26, and Harold Finley, 20. All but Finley had bonded out.
Hazing in Florida was upgraded to a felony in 2005 following the death of a University of Miami student four years earlier. Chad Meredith was drunk and died trying to swim across a lake at the behest of his fraternity brothers. No charges were filed, but a civil jury ordered the fraternity to pay Meredith’s parents $12 million.
Champion had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back and died of internal bleeding, Lamar said. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers the drum major was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.
The prosecutor gave no motive for the beating. But witnesses said Champion might have been targeted because he opposed the routine hazing that went on in the marching band or because he was gay, according his family’s attorney.
Hazing has long been practiced in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges like FAMU in the South, where the band is often as revered as the football team and members are campus celebrities.
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