Hazing trial starts for 1 FAMU band member

AP News
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Posted: Oct 27, 2014 7:32 PM
Hazing trial starts for 1 FAMU band member

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Jury selection in the trial of one of the four remaining former Florida A&M University's band members charged with felony hazing and manslaughter in the death of a drum major is set to move to a second day, while trials for three other remaining defendants have been postponed until April.

Attorneys questioned 80 prospective jurors Monday at the start of the trial of 27-year-old Dante Martin. About 45 of them were held for additional questioning Tuesday. The trial began nearly three years after drum major Robert Champion died from being beaten. It is expected to last a week.

Earlier Monday, Judge Renee Roche delayed the trials for defendants Benjamin McNamee, Aaron Golson and Darryl Cearnel after their attorneys said they did not have the opportunity to question witnesses about hazing charges that were added to the case.

All four have pleaded not guilty in the death of Champion, of Decatur, Georgia. He died from what authorities say was a hazing ritual in November 2011.

His death has shined a spotlight on a hazing ritual at FAMU known as "crossing Bus C," and caused the band — which had played at the Super Bowl and before U.S. presidents — to be suspended for more than a year. It also contributed to the resignation of the university's president.

Hours after a football game in Orlando, band members boarded Bus C parked outside a hotel. They pummeled Champion, 26, and two other band members as they tried to wade their way through a pounding gauntlet of fists, drumsticks and mallets from the front to the back of the bus.

After making it to the back, Champion vomited and complained of trouble breathing. He soon fell unconscious and couldn't be revived. He died from hemorrhagic shock and his autopsy showed extensive internal bleeding.

Champion's parents, Pam and Robert Champion, Sr., were not in court Monday but planned to be there Tuesday when opening statements could begin.

"I'd rather not even be here, and I'd rather not have any other parent here. But I cannot not be here," Pam Champion said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's going to be hard to sit (in court), but it can't be ... harder than losing your son the way he was lost, knowing how much he loved what he was doing.

"Yes, he cared a lot about that school, and he cared a lot about that band. But Robert marched to a different beat than ... those who killed him did. Yes, it's going to be hard. But I have to do that."

Fifteen former band members originally were charged in the incident. Eleven have had their cases settled, and several of them will be called as witnesses to describe what happened on the bus.

State Attorney Jeff Ashton said he wants jurors to learn about the history of hazing in FAMU's marching band so they understand that what happened on the bus was a "consistent pattern."

Besides "crossing Bus C," jurors likely will learn about other hazing rituals by band members. Those include "the hot seat," when band members sit in bus seats with heads between legs as other band members beat them, as well as "prepping," when a shirtless band member is slapped on the back and chest.

"They got on the bus for one thing, and that is to break the law," Ashton said at a recent hearing. "The jury has to understand this wasn't an isolated incident, that these four defendants knew what they were doing and that they were breaking the law."

Defense attorneys have challenged Florida's anti-hazing law, claiming the statute is so vague that what happened on the band bus can be considered a competition, not hazing.

"The hazing statute, the way it is written is crazy," Dino Michaels, one of the attorneys for Martin, said at a recent hearing.

Roche denied a defense motion asking that the hazing statute be ruled unconstitutional, but she reached a compromise with defense attorneys and Ashton on whether witnesses can say the word "hazing" during the trial. The judge ruled witnesses could use the word "hazing" if they had previously read the statute defining it, such as in the anti-hazing pledges FAMU band members had to sign even before Champion's death.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed no band members have said in depositions that Champion's sexual orientation played a role in the hazing, so the fact that he was gay won't be brought up during the trial.

Defense attorneys say Champion's body may have been tampered with when it left the custody of the medical examiner's office so organs could be harvested. They also say the coroner uses analogies about how Champion died that could be misconstrued by jurors.

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