Charges filed in hazing death of Florida university drum major

Reuters News
Posted: May 02, 2012 4:24 PM
Charges filed in hazing death of Florida university drum major

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Thirteen people were charged on Wednesday in the death of a drum major for Florida A&M University's celebrated marching band who died after a brutal hazing ritual last November, a state prosecutor said.

Eleven of the accused were charged with a third-degree felony for "hazing with death," punishable under Florida law by a maximum of six years in jail, said Florida's Ninth Circuit State Attorney Lawson Lamar. Two others will face a misdemeanor charge, he said.

The charges capped a lengthy investigation into the death of drum major Robert Champion, who died on a band charter bus after the university's renowned "Marching 100" band performed at the annual Florida Classic football game.

"The family is very disappointed" that murder charges were not pursued, said Chris Chestnut, the lawyer for the Champion family.

So far only one of those charged has been arrested, officials said. They declined to name any of the defendants in order not to tip them off.

Champion's death was ruled a homicide as a result of a "hemorrhagic shock" caused by blunt force trauma during the hazing, according to the medical examiner's office.

"Robert Champion died as a result of being beaten," Lamar said. "His death is not linked to one sole strike but is attributed to multiple blows."

The beating took place while the bus was parked at an Orlando hotel following the game.

Lamar said that under a Florida law passed last year a hazing that results in serious bodily injury or death is punishable by a "felony-level penalty," rather than murder charges.

At a press conference in January, the drum major's parents, Robert and Pam Champion said they were still searching for answers as to why their son was targeted. They confirmed he was gay but rejected what they called rumors that his sexual orientation made him a hazing target.

Pam Champion said her son was defined not by his sexuality but by his leadership skills. She said he was known to reject hazing.

"Perhaps one of the motives might have been retaliatory," she said.

Lamar said most authorities would rather not acknowledge that a tradition of hazing in colleges "is something that will continue to happen out of sight until a student like Robert Champion pays the ultimate price."

Robert Champion Sr. said he knew nothing about the 50-year culture of hazing at the FAMU band when he sent his son off to school. Champion said he regularly spoke by phone to his son, and that he always ended the calls by asking whether his son had anything he needed to tell him.

"He never mentioned anything to me about hazing," Robert Champion Sr. said.

The FAMU case has highlighted a nationwide problem at universities as well as the military.

Students at Boston University are under investigation for an incident earlier this month involving five male students who were found covered in condiments, bound together and shivering in their underwear in an off-campus house, police said, in an apparent fraternity hazing incident.

Three U.S. Marines were accused of hazing a fellow Marine who later killed himself last year. One Marine pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days of confinement and a demotion. Two other Marines were acquitted by a military jury.

FAMU in January banned all student organizations from recruiting new members until fall and canceled summer band camp.

A lawyer told Reuters that two FAMU music professors recently resigned after a Tallahassee police report alleged they were present at a band party where students were hazed.

One professor, Diron Holloway, allegedly took part in beating students who were pledging for a fraternity during a party at his home in the spring of 2010, the police said.

Students who attended the party told investigators that another professor, Anthony Simons III, was present, according to the police report.

Tallahassee defense attorney Mutaqee Akbar told Reuters both men resigned after receiving letters from the university notifying them its intent to dismiss them. Akbar has told Reuters that Simons doesn't remember whether he was at the party but that he never witnessed or participated in hazing.

(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Tom Brown and Bill Trott)