Florida university slammed for defense in hazing death case

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 11, 2012 6:41 PM
Florida university slammed for defense in hazing death case

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - The family of a Florida A&M University drum major killed in a brutal hazing ritual is "appalled" by the university's claim that the student was responsible for his own death, their lawyer said on Tuesday.

"We are appalled at the audacity of this institution to blame this murder on the victim," said Christopher Chestnut, lawyer for the parents of drum major Robert Champion Jr.

He spoke in reaction to the motion lawyers for Florida A&M filed in Orange County Circuit Court on Monday, when they called for dismissal of the Champion family's wrongful death lawsuit.

The motion said the 26-year-old Champion volunteered to be hazed, in a bid to gain respect from fellow band members, and thus was responsible for his own death.

"Robert Champion, Jr. expressly assumed the risk of the hazing injuries that caused his death," wrote FAMU lawyer Richard Mitchell, in the bluntly worded court filing on Monday.

FAMU also argues that Champion, by submitting to hazing, was an active participant in a forcible felony which makes his family ineligible to win a lawsuit against the university.

"No Florida public university or college has a legal duty to protect an adult student from the result of their own decision to participate in a dangerous crime while off-campus and after retiring from university-sponsored events, as Robert Champion, Jr. did here," Mitchell said.

Chestnut, however, said the issue was not Champion's age but peer group pressure and the university's internal culture.

"There are cultural pressures within the college that is allowed here that basically facilitate this culture. For you to succeed and thrive, part of being in college and in the band is being accepted," Chestnut said.

The university has acknowledged that hazing was a longstanding problem in the band, but Chestnut said it was important to note that Champion was the first band member killed by the ritual.

"Anyone in a hazing has the expectation that I may get hurt but no one expects to be killed. There is a certain trust," Chestnut said.

Twelve band members have been charged with third-degree felony hazing in the Champion case, and all have pleaded not guilty. In addition, the university president and the band director have resigned, and the band has been on suspension since Champion's death.

Champion, a leader of the renowned "Marching 100" band at the historically black college in Tallahassee, died during a band trip to Orlando last fall.

A medical examiner ruled Champion's death a homicide and determined he died of hemorrhagic shock within an hour of his hazing. The medical examiner found signs of multiple blows to his chest, arms, shoulders and back, and extensive internal bleeding.

(Editing By Tom Brown and Eric Walsh)