Legal experts discuss FAMU band member interviews

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Posted: May 24, 2012 11:53 AM
Legal experts discuss FAMU band member interviews

Band members' statements to investigators that a Florida A&M University drum major willingly got on a bus where he endured a beating with drumsticks, mallets and fists help explain why prosecutors didn't file more severe charges such as manslaughter and second-degree murder, legal experts say.

Interviews with defendants in Robert Champion's killing and other band members released Wednesday paint the most detailed picture yet of what happened the night he died last November. They also offer some insight into why Robert Champion, whose parents and friends say was a vocal opponent of hazing, finally relented and got aboard "Bus C," the band's notorious venue for hazing after its performances during FAMU football games.

Champion was seeking the top position in the famed marching band, leading dozens who had already endured the hazing ritual. The Marching 100 has performed at Super Bowls and presidential inauguration parades, and some felt the leadership position had to be earned.

"It's a respect thing, you know," defendant Jonathan Boyce told detectives. "Well, he was wanting to do it all ... all season."

What awaited him was a punishing scrum in which about 15 people pushed, struck, kicked and grabbed at participants as they tried to wade down the aisle from the bus's driver seat to touch the back wall, according to the interviews. One witness said bigger band members waited at the back to make the final few steps the most difficult. Several others who went through it said the ordeal leaves participants dizzy and breathless at a minimum.

After finishing the ordeal, Champion vomited and complained of trouble breathing. He soon fell unconscious and couldn't be revived. An autopsy concluded Champion suffered blunt trauma blows to his body and died from shock caused by severe bleeding.

Thirteen band members have been charged with causing Champion's death on Nov. 19. Eleven defendants face a count of third-degree felony hazing, and two others have been charged with misdemeanors. The team has been suspended at least until next year, and its director resigned earlier this month.

"The fact that he voluntarily submitted to it knowing it was a ritual _ obviously he didn't know the outcome _ I think that weighed very heavily on the prosecution's deciding to go to third-degree hazing as opposed to a manslaughter or a second-degree murder charge," said Randy McClain, a defense attorney in the Orlando area.

Defense attorneys likely will use Champion's willingness to board the bus as part of their clients' defense, McClain said.

"If he went on the bus knowing, `We're going to have this ritual where they punch me,' if he knew that ... basically the defense is going to take the tact, `Look, he consented to this and just because there is a bad outcome doesn't make it a criminal act,'" McClain said.

Richard Sigal, a retired sociology professor at the County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J., who holds anti-hazing workshops at schools, said consenting to board the bus makes no difference.

"Even though hazers may claim the hazing is optional, and pledges, rookies or new members need not comply if they don't want to, since the victims don't know realistically what the consequences will be for failure to comply, they submit," Sigal wrote in an email. "I think the suggestion being made by some of those charged with hazing that Mr. Champion agreed to be hazed demonstrates their lack of understanding of the intricacies of what hazing entails."

Champion's death illustrated how ingrained hazing was in the band, although previous hazing incidents were well-documented at the school in lawsuits and arrests. Two band members received serious kidney injuries during hazing beatings several years ago, and another member was initially thought to have a cracked thigh bone after a hazing incident but further examination showed it was only bruised.

Still, nobody is forced to endure the hazing on Bus C. It is voluntary, another defendant, Caleb Jackson, told detectives.

"If you go to that bus that's saying that you wanted to do it," Jackson said. "It's not anybody saying, `Yeah you go and come on this bus,' especially with it being a drum major and a strong mind .... If you came to the bus they mean you made up in your mind that's what you wanted to do."

Champion's parents, Pam and Robert Sr., said they are having a hard time believing their son volunteered to be hazed. They had hoped for more serious charges against the defendants.

"He was murdered on that bus, and no one signs up for that," Pam Champion said in Atlanta.

After performing at the season's final football game against rival Bethune-Cookman University on Nov. 19, Champion rode in a stretch limo with band director Julian White and other drum majors back to their Orlando hotel.

Even though band members are required to sign a pledge promising not to participate in hazing, initiations were planned that night for Champion and two other band members aboard Bus C. Along with "crossing over," the bus was also known for "the hot seat," which involved getting kicked and beaten with drumsticks and bass drum mallets while covered with a blanket.

Boyce, who was back at a hotel room, said that people on the bus were sending him texts to ask if Champion was going to participate. Boyce said Champion told him he intended to go through with it.

Ryan Dean, a drummer who rode on Bus C regularly, said he was surprised when Champion told him he planned to participate.

"Earlier that weekend, I talked to him and he said `I will see you guys on the bus.' I was going, like, `Why?'" said Dean, who is a defendant. "He said it so nonchalantly, I thought that was weird and out of character for him because he never approved of anything like that."

Dean, who said he had been hazed previously, said there was pressure to submit.

"If you want to be somebody, you do it," Dean said.

Drum major Keon Hollis, who was hazed immediately before Champion, said the bus usually carried the percussion section, whose respect is considered crucial because it's the largest. Hollis said he was kicked, punched and struck with straps. Another band member, Lissette Sanchez, also was hazed before Champion.

Boyce said he was in a female band member's hotel room when someone called to say Champion was on the bus. By the time Boyce got there, Champion was in the back, getting kicked and punched, said Boyce. He said he and another defendant, Shawn Turner, tried to shield Champion from the blows and pull him to the back of the bus to end the ritual quickly.

Champion seemed fine immediately afterward, Hollis said, only saying he was thirsty. Hollis said he gave Champion something to drink.

Soon after, Champion began panicking, saying he couldn't breathe or see, even though his eyes were wide open, Boyce said.

Champion collapsed and later died.

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Associated Press writers Kyle Hightower in Orlando, Kelli Kennedy, Curt Anderson, Suzette Laboy, Christine Armario Laura Wides and Jennifer Kay in Miami; Gary Fineout and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee; Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach; Mitch Stacy in Tampa and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.


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