Thirteen people were charged Wednesday for their roles in the hazing death of Florida A&M university drum major who was severely beaten in what appears to be one of the biggest college hazing cases ever.
The charges were announced more than five months after 26-year-old Robert Champion died aboard a chartered bus parked outside an Orlando hotel following a performance against a rival school. The case has exposed a harsh tradition among marching bands at some colleges around the U.S.
Champion was severely beaten by band members in November and had with bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back, authorities said. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers Champion was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.
State Attorney Lawson Lamar said 11 of the 13 people will face a hazing resulting death charge, a third-degree felony. If convicted, they could face up to nearly six years in prison. The other two people will face a misdemeanor charges.
The names of those charged will not be released until they are all arrested, Lamar said. It was also not immediately clear whether they were all band members.
Legal experts had predicted prosecutors may file more serious charges like manslaughter and second-degree murder. The Champion family attorney, Christopher Chestnut, said they were disappointed.
“They had hoped for more serious charges. They were hoping for a stronger message. He was beaten to death,” he said.
Prosecutors, however, didn’t think they had enough evidence.
“The testimony obtained to date does not support a charge of murder, in that it does not contain the elements of murder,” Lamar 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.”
Florida’s hazing law was passed in 2005 following the death of University of Miami student Chad Meredith four years earlier. Meredith was drunk and died trying to swim across a lake at the behest of fraternity brothers. No criminal charges were filed in his case, but a civil jury ordered the fraternity Kappa Sigma to pay Meredith’s parents $12 million.
Champion’s death has jeopardized the future of FAMU’s legendary marching band, which has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls and even represented the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
Hazing has long been a problem at fraternities and sororities, and in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges in the South, where a spot in the band is coveted and revered as much as the sports teams. On HBCU campuses, band members are often given perks and treated like celebrities.
Richard Sigal, who holds anti-hazing workshops at schools, said most cases don’t end up with criminal charges. And those that do, typically end in plea deals with little or no jail time.
“I don’t have any recollection of that many defendants in a case,” Sigal, a retired sociology professor at the County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J. “I’m not saying it never happened, but I have no memory of such a large number of defendants in a case.”
Much of the hazing reported at Florida A&M has involved students trying to get into certain groups within the band. Those who don’t make a group were often ostracized.
Champion’s parents have sued the bus company owner, claiming in a lawsuit that the bus driver stood guard outside the bus while the hazing took place. The bus company owner initially said the bus driver was helping other band members with their equipment when the hazing took place.
Witnesses in the Champion case have told his parents he might have been targeted because he opposed the hazing, the parents’ attorney has said. It has also been suggested to them that Champion was targeted because he was gay and a candidate for chief drum major.
The lawsuit described two types of hazing that took place on the bus. During the first, pledges of a band clique known as “Bus C” ran from the front to the back of the bus while other band members slapped, kicked and hit them. A pledge who fell was stomped and dragged to the front of the bus to run again.
In a ritual known as “the hot seat,” a pillow case was placed over the pledge’s nose and mouth while the pledge was forced to answer questions. If a pledge got a right answer, the pillow case was removed briefly; a pledge with a wrong answer was given another question without a chance to take a breath, the lawsuit said.
FAMU has suspended the band and launched a task force to recommend steps it could take to curtail hazing.
Solomon Badger, chairman of the Florida A&M board of trustees, said the school is doing everything it can to eradicate hazing.
“I hope this wraps its arm around everything we have been plagued with the last six months,” Badger said.
In a separate incident at FAMU, three people were charged after alleged hazing ceremonies Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. That’s when Bria Shante Hunter said her legs were beaten with fists and a metal ruler to initiate her into the “Red Dawg Order,” a band clique for students who hail from Georgia.
Four band members were also arrested earlier this year and charged with hazing in the alleged beatings of five pledges to a marching band club known as the Clones, a group within the band’s clarinet section, a police report said.
The hazing took place in “three or four initiation meetings” that began around Sept. 1 in a house about a mile from campus. Five pledges were lined up in order of their height and “forced to exercise, play music, and were either punched, prepped (slapped with both hands on back) and/or paddled,” police said.
During the initiations, pledges were forced to give money and were pressured to keep exercising “even after exhaustion.”
On Tuesday, a lawyer for two FAMU music professors who allegedly were present during an unrelated hazing of band fraternity pledges in early 2010 said they have been forced out.