By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A former roommate who insisted he tried to protect a Florida college drum major from a fatal hazing ritual in 2011 accepted a plea deal on Friday to avoid facing worse charges at a trial that had been set for next week.
Rikki Wills, 24, who saw drum major Robert Champion gasp his last breath, pleaded no contest to felony and misdemeanor hazing in exchange for prosecutors dropping a manslaughter charge that carried a potential 15-year prison sentence, his lawyer told Reuters.
"He realized how high the stakes were. It was just a little too much of a risk for him," defense attorney William Hancock said.
The deal limits Wills' penalty to one year of community control and six years of probation, Hancock said. Sentencing is set for June 7 when Champion's parents can be present.
Champion, 26, died aboard a chartered bus in Orlando after submitting to a hazing ritual during which he was expected to run a gantlet of Florida A & M University band members who beat him and tried to block his way.
Champion's death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner who found he died of hemorrhagic shock as a result of blunt-force trauma.
The case focused a spotlight on deeply ingrained hazing at the historically black university in Tallahassee and within the school's celebrated "Marching 100" band. The university suspended its band indefinitely after Champion's death.
Hancock said Wills went to the bus to protect Champion after being told Champion had decided to submit to the hazing.
"(Wills) had actually talked Mr. Champion out of going through the hazing on numerous occasions. When he found out that he (Champion) was going to go through with it, he (Wills) actually left his family and went to try to help him and was actually pulling people off of him during the hazing," Hancock said.
Wills spoke openly about the incident including in a 2012 nationally televised HBO Real Sports interview.
"They were hitting him hard, haymakers (punches), kidney shots and they had percussion sticks, I saw belts. He was just sitting there like a sitting duck," Wills said on HBO. At the end of the beating, Wills said, "He (Champion) started saying 'Oh Lord, Jesus, please help me. Please help me.' Those were probably the last words he said."
Wills was one of 12 band members originally charged with hazing. In March, a new prosecutor charged two more band members and upgraded the charges to include manslaughter.
Besides Wills, two other band members previously pleaded no contest to hazing and a third pleaded no contest to hazing and manslaughter.
Hancock questioned the way the case has been prosecuted.
"I think some of them should have been charged but certainly not these least culpable," Hancock said, referring to Wills. "I really think that the institution (FAMU) should have been charged."
(Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Richard Chang)