published Friday, May 4th, 2012

Prosecutors opt for hazing charges in FAMU case

By MIKE SCHNEIDER

Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla — 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, his 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 Wednesday 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 State Attorney Lawson Lamar at a news conference announcing the charges.

Champion’s mother, Pam, said Thursday 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.”

Former Miami-Dade prosecutor Michael Grieco said Lamar’s decision not to file the more serious charges may have been influenced by the Casey Anthony trial. Lamar’s office charged the Florida mother with first-degree murder for her daughter’s death even though the medical examiner couldn’t conclusively tell how she died. A jury acquitted Anthony of murder.

“He clearly has learned from the recent prosecutorial missteps on another high profile case in central Florida and kept it appropriate,” said Grieco, who is now a defense attorney in private practice.

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 Wednesday in Leon County. Wills was allowed to leave jail Wednesday night after posting a $15,000 bond.

Bryan Jones turned himself in Wednesday night 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 Thursday to let Jackson leave jail because he’s already on probation for battery.

Jasmine Alexander, who said she’s the mother of a 3-year-old with Jackson and engaged to him, pleaded with the judge, saying Jackson is the only source of income for their family. Jackson told the judge through a video teleconference that he works at a Family Dollar store.

“He’s been walking a straight path,” Alexander told County Judge Ronald Flury.

Other defendants who had turned themselves in by Thursday afternoon were: Jesse Baskin, 20, and Benjamin McNamee, in Miami-Dade County; Shawn Turner, 26, in the Panhandle’s Gadsden County; and Harold Finley, 20, in Palm Beach County. All but Finley had bonded out.

Court records show Baskin was arrested in March for misdemeanor cannabis possession. The charge wasn’t prosecuted because he was sent to a pretrial diversion program.

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.

While the most sensational hazing cases have typically involved fraternities, sororities or athletic teams, the FAMU tragedy in November exposed a brutal tradition among marching bands at some colleges around the U.S.

“The death ... is nothing short of an American tragedy,” Lamar said. “No one should have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death.”

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 U.S. 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.

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.

Much of the hazing reported at FAMU has involved students trying to get into certain cliques within the band, and it has typically included punching, slapping and paddling.

Richard Sigal, a retired sociology professor at the County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J., who holds anti-hazing workshops at schools, said he could not recall another hazing case with so many defendants. Most cases don’t result in criminal charges, and those that do typically end in plea bargains with little or no jail time, Sigal said.

Champion’s parents have sued the bus company owner, claiming the driver stood guard outside while the hazing took place. The company said the driver was helping band members with their equipment.

The lawsuit described two types of hazing that took place on the bus.

In one ritual, students ran from the front of the bus to the back while other band members slapped, kicked and hit them. A student who fell was stomped and dragged to the front to run again.

In a ritual known as “the hot seat,” a pillowcase was placed over the student’s nose and mouth and he or she was forced to answer questions. If the student gave the correct answer, the pillowcase was removed briefly; a student who supplied a wrong answer was given another question without a chance to take a breath, the lawsuit said.

FAMU president James Ammons and board chairman Solomon Badger said in a joint statement that the school was working “vigorously” to eradicate hazing.

FAMU journalism major Victoria McKnight said she thinks the filing of criminal charges will curtail hazing during initiations into campus groups.

“Students on campus are going to be a lot more wary of what they do to pledges and their intake process,” said McKnight, 22, of Miami. “Everybody is throwing out ideas on how to end hazing, especially this kind of brutal hazing.”

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Associated Press writers Suzette Laboy, Christine Armario and Curt Anderson in Miami; Gary Fineout, Brendan Farrington and Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee; and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP .

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