Commentary: Florida A&M drum major's death went far beyond hazing

The Miami HeraldMay 9, 2012 

Eleven of the 13 people who allegedly participated in killing Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion have been charged with “a hazing resulting in death,” a low-grade felony. The two others are accused of misdemeanors.

You can’t blame Champion’s family for being disappointed, and a bit confused.

Champion was singled out for an attack, then beaten until he died. That it occurred during a hazing doesn’t mean it should be handled differently from any other violent homicide, yet it is being handled differently.

Way differently.

Not one of the 13 suspects was booked for murder or even plain old manslaughter, a second-degree felony that can bring up to 15 years in prison. By contrast, causing a death by hazing is only a third-degree felony for which the maximum term is six years.

In other words, a gang-style lethal assault in Florida is more leniently appraised when it’s a moronic college ritual gone awry. Six years behind bars isn’t light time, but it’s much better than the high end of a manslaughter conviction.

What do you think would have happened if Champion had been killed by a mob of strangers in a barroom, or on a street corner?

For starters, authorities wouldn’t have taken more than five months to make an arrest, especially if they had the names of everyone involved. You can also be sure that the defendants in such a case wouldn’t be charged with “hazing” — they’d be facing much heavier felonies.

Here’s how Champion died. The 26-year-old man was made to walk down the aisle of a chartered bus, parked outside an Orlando hotel, while fellow band members (and possibly others) repeatedly kicked and punched him.

Evidently this is what passed for dear tradition within the famed A&M Marching 100, now in disciplinary limbo.

Eventually, Champion collapsed. Later somebody dialed 911: “One of our drum majors is on the bus, and he’s not breathing . . . He’s in my hands, ma’am. He’s cold.”

If Champion was cold to the touch, it was likely he’d been down for a while.

Lying there, dying among his own band mates after a football-game performance.

In December, less than a month after the incident, the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Champion’s death was a homicide, the autopsy showing “extensive contusions of his chest, arms, shoulder and back with extensive hemorrhage.”

Although coroners found no bone fractures or damage to Champion’s internal organs, there was “significant rapid blood loss” from the injuries he’d received. The cause of death was reported as “hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, incurred by blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident.”

So it was manifest from the beginning that Champion hadn’t fallen down the steps of the bus 20 or 30 times. He’d been battered — and not by teenagers gone wild. Most of the suspects are men in their 20s.

The state of Florida didn’t need a special anti-hazing law in order to prosecute. Long-standing criminal statutes specifically address assaults that end in death.

Nowhere in this country is it legal for 13 persons — or six, or two, or one — to strike another person if he or she isn’t a threat. Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter to prosecutors whether the assailants are wearing band uniforms, fraternity jerseys or the do-rag of a street gang.

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar said the Champion case is complicated, and investigators didn’t find sufficient evidence for a murder charge.

Then how about manslaughter, at least?

Said Lamar: “We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion. It is an aggregation of things . . .”

In fact, Champion suffered repeated blows. Identifying which of the band members delivered the most — or the most damaging — won’t be easy. It seldom is when multiple participants are involved.

But Lamar said the killing fits Florida’s statute against hazing, a widely banned practice he described as “bullying with a tradition — a tradition that we cannot bear in America.”

It would be nice to think that the publicity about the attack on Champion will deter future hazing in high schools, colleges and the military. So far, the prospects aren’t so good.

Two months after the FAMU killing, two male students seeking to join the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity at Youngstown State University in Ohio were “initiated” by being beaten with fists, a paddle and a wire laundry hangar.

The abuse continued over a period of 12 days, after which one of the victims required a ventilator to breathe. Nine men, only one a current YSU student, were indicted.

Here’s the difference: The Ohio defendants aren’t being charged with hazing, but rather with felony assault.

A grownup charge for a grownup crime, as it should be.

And they’d be facing far worse if one of their victims had died the way Robert Champion did.

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