Defense argues FAMU hazing death was 'contest'

AP News
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Posted: Oct 14, 2014 3:41 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Defense attorneys for four Florida A&M band members charged in a drum major's death said Tuesday that the state's anti-hazing law is so vague that what happened on the band bus can be considered a contest, not hazing.

Fifteen former band members were charged with manslaughter and hazing in the November 2011 death of Robert Champion, of Decatur, Georgia. All but the four remaining defendants have had their cases settled.

Champion died after running through a gauntlet of band members who hit him with drumsticks, mallets and fists as he walked through the bus.

"However brutal you make think it may be, crossing Bus C was competitive," said Richard Escobar, a defense attorney for former FAMU band member Dante Martin. "You have an individual who was crossing, along with three or four of his buddies, trying to get him from the front of the bus to the back of the bus. ... By its very definition, that's competitive."

Defense attorneys said a sentence in the anti-hazing law makes it impossible to determine what conduct is prohibited. The sentence is: "Hazing does not include customary athletic events or other similar contests or competitions or any activity or conduct that furthers a legal and legitimate objective."

"When you read it, do you know what is illegal, what you can do and can't do?" Escobar said.

After finishing the ordeal, Champion vomited and complained of trouble breathing. He soon fell unconscious and couldn't be revived.

Defense attorneys plan to use testimony from two linguistic experts and may introduce the audio recordings of the legislative process that created the law.

Circuit Judge Rene Roche set a hearing for next week. She already has denied a previous motion asking that the law be ruled unconstitutional, but she allowed defense attorneys to file a new challenge. The trial is set to start Oct. 27.

Defense attorneys also have asked the judge to keep the word "hazing" from being used at the trial and to exclude any reference to Champion being gay. Champions parents have said they don't think his sexual orientation had anything to do with the hazing, but the defendants' attorneys say any testimony about it could prejudice jurors against their clients.

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