The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

National News

May 2, 2012

13 charged in Florida drum major’s death

ATLANTA — A Florida prosecutor announced Wednesday that charges have been filed against 13 people in connection with the death of Robert Champion, the Florida A&M drum major who was allegedly beaten to death as part of a college hazing ritual on a band bus.

But Lawson Lamar, the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, declined to name or in any way identify the suspects at Wednesday’s televised news conference in Orlando, because law enforcement officials were in the process of rounding them up. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement official said that as of Wednesday afternoon, only one suspect was in custody.

“Obviously, we cannot divulge the names,” Lamar said, “so they cannot flee.”

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said that 11 of the 13 suspects were charged with felony hazing. They face a maximum of six years in prison for the charges if they do not have prior criminal records, Lamar said.

More than 20 misdemeanor hazing charges were also filed stemming from other incidents that were apparently brought to light as a result of the investigation into Champion’s death in November.

Lawson read from excerpts of a medical examiner’s report that concluded that Champion, 26, died as a result of a brutal beating he received on the band’s charter bus after the Florida A&M football team’s 26-16 loss to rival Bethune-Cookman University.

The incident sent shock waves across American college campuses, where many administrations have attempted in recent years to rein in hazing rituals at fraternities and other campus organizations.

The soul-searching has been particularly deep at the historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, many of which have a distinctive marching band tradition known for attracting and developing some of the nation’s finest musicians. FAMU’s band, The Marching 100, is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, of its kind.

The fallout on FAMU’s Tallahassee campus has been significant. The band director, Julian White, was placed on administrative leave in November. In recent days, two music teachers accused of being present at a 2010 band hazing incident resigned before the school could fire them, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The school has also convened an anti-hazing advisory panel, but many of the members have stepped down due to “operational constraints” and the limited time they had in which to prepare a report, according to a school spokesman’s statement.

Champion’s parents have been openly critical of the pace of the criminal investigation. A call to their attorney, Christopher Chestnut, was not returned Wednesday.

Lawson, the prosecutor, noted Wednesday that the charges were brought under an anti-hazing criminal statute that became law last year.

At the news conference, Lawson, when asked why more serious felony charges were not filed, said that the testimony gathered in more than 48 interviews does not thus far “contain the elements of a murder.”

“We do not have a blow, or a shot, or a knife-thrust that killed Mr. Champion,” he said. “It is an aggregation of things, which exactly fit the Florida statute as written by the Legislature. They did a good job. This allows us to go forward with only having to prove two things: participation in hazing and a death.”

Though there was “more than sufficient evidence” to move forward with the case, Lawson said, he urged anyone else with facts about it to come forward “and tell the whole truth.”

“Especially those not charged,” he said. “Because further charges may be forthcoming in the future.”

 

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