The shocking and tragic death of a Florida A&M University band member last November, which provoked an outcry in Florida and nationwide over the longstanding practice of campus hazing, culminated Wednesday when prosecutors filed charges — although none for murder — against 13 suspects.
The 13 defendants who allegedly took part in the beating death of Robert Champion — a 26-year-old drum major — will face charges of a hazing resulting in death, a third-degree felony, said Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar during a nationally televised news conference in Orlando.
“The death of ... Champion is nothing short of an American tragedy,” Lamar told reporters. “While Robert and his family were sacrificing and preparing for his entrance into college, an event that should have assured him a bright and meaningful future, no one could have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death.”
Lamar added: “An event that some early on mistakenly called a rite of passage. I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying. It’s bullying with a tradition — a tradition that we cannot bear in America.”
Champion died Nov. 19 after a violent hazing episode in which several band members physically assaulted him on a parked charter bus outside the Florida Classic football game in Orlando. Authorities said they would not release the names of all those charged until each was in custody. Two — Caleb Jackson, 23, and Rikki Willis, 24 — were jailed in Leon County late Wednesday.
Champion’s mother, Pam, of Atlanta, who did not attend the press conference, told The Associated Press that she was glad charges were brought but disappointed they weren’t more severe. “I thought there would be more serious charges,” she said. “I thought it should send a harsher message.”
Lamar, who described the case as “complicated,” said investigators did dozens of interviews with students at the historically black college, but did not have enough evidence to bring murder charges.
“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.”
The Legislature passed a law in 2005 making hazing a third-degree felony. Under that law, those involved in Champion’s death could face up to six years in prison, Lamar said.
Champion’s death shined a harsh national spotlight onto FAMU’s famed Marching 100 band, which normally grabs headlines for its appearances at presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls and the Grammys.
Current and former members began to open up about the long-running culture of hazing at the band, where some said they subjected themselves to physical abuse as a rite of passage into prestigious subgroups.
FAMU officials say they have worked diligently to put an end to hazing on campus in the wake of Champion’s death.
“We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again,” said FAMU President James Ammons and Board of Trustees Chair Solomon Badger, in a statement. “There have been significant steps taken by FAMU in the past five months, with the singular goal to end hazing.”
In addition to suspending the band indefinitely, the university suspended student groups from inducting new members until the fall semester. It also set up an committee to look more closely at ways to eradicate hazing on campus.
D. Julian White, the band’s director, was put on administrative leave. He is hoping to get reinstated, arguing that he tried unsuccessfully to get the university to pay more attention to hazing before Champion’s death.
“Dr. White worked tirelessly to root out hazing in all forms over the past 22 years as director of bands,” said White’s lawyer, Chuck Hobbs.
Gov. Rick Scott, who asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to assist with the investigation and had urged FAMU’s board of trustees to suspend White, did not issue an immediate statement.
Champion’s parents are suing the owner of the bus company that transported the band, claiming that the bus driver stood guard outside the bus as Champion was being beat to death.
The lawsuit alleges several band members participated in a hazing ritual in which Champion attempted to walk from one end of the bus to the other, while absorbing a flurry of punches and kicks.
A 911 call recorded shortly after Champion collapsed depicts frantic band members trying to revive him.
“One of our drum majors is on the bus, and he’s not breathing,” the caller tells the dispatch. “He’s in my hands, ma’am. He’s cold.”
Lamar said Champion died from “hemorrhagic shock” and had “extensive contusions” on his chest, arms, shoulders and back, evidence that he was beaten to death.
He said the incident should serve as a tragic reminder of the horrific consequences of hazing.
“A tradition of hazing in our nations’ colleges and universities is something that will continue to happen out of sight until a student like Robert Champion pays the ultimate price,” said Lamar. “A family has lost their son. A university has lost a fine, kind young student.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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