Florida files charges in death of FAMU drum major, hazing of 2 others

Posted at 8:22 PM, May 02, 2012
and last updated 2012-05-02 20:22:53-04

(CNN) — Charges have been brought against 13 people after an investigation into the suspected hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, a Florida prosecutor announced Wednesday.

“Robert Champion died as a result of being beaten,” State Attorney Lawson Lamar said in Orlando. “His death is not linked to one sole strike but is attributed to multiple blows.”

The attorney for the victim’s family called the death a murder and said relatives were disappointed that more severe charges were not filed.

Eleven individuals each face one count of third-degree felony hazing resulting in death, according to officials

Each one is also accused of two counts of first-degree misdemeanor hazing. Two people each face a single count of misdemeanor first-degree hazing.

Some of the charges involved two other alleged hazing victims who were not seriously injured, officials said.

“It’s all related to the same investigation that began with Robert Champion,” said Danielle Tavernier, a spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office. “Investigators found these two victims during the course of investigating the death of Mr. Champion.”

Champion’s death more than five months ago brought renewed public scrutiny to hazing, a practice that has gone on for years. FAMU said it has taken steps to eradicate the problem.

Authorities declined to identify those who had not been arrested.

Two suspects were being held Wednesday afternoon at the Leon County Jail, according to Lt. James McQuaig, spokesman for the Leon County Sheriff’s Office. The suspects were identified as Caleb Jackson, 23, and Rikki Wills, 24. Both are charged with felony hazing resulting in death. FAMU is in Tallahassee, the county seat.

Joyce Dawley, the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Orlando division, said one person was being sought out of state.

The drum major collapsed in Orlando on a bus, which was carrying members of FAMU’s Marching 100 after a November football game that included a halftime performance by the group.

Medical examiners ruled his death a homicide, saying he died “within an hour of a hazing incident during which he suffered multiple blunt trauma blows to his body.”

“This is a homicide by hazing,” Lamar said, calling the case “complicated.”

The case built by investigators does not support a charge of murder, he said.

“We can prove participation in hazing and a death. We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion. It is an aggregation of things, which exactly fit the Florida statute as written by the Legislature,” Lamar said.

But it fits a state law that makes a hazing that results in death a felony with possible prison time up to six years. Under that law, the prosecution “only has to prove two things: participation in hazing and a death,” Lamar said.

Attorney Christopher Chestnut said the drum major’s parents, Pam and Robert Champion, don’t want to see the futures of students destroyed, but “they want accountability for the murder of their child.”

He called the charges a “bittersweet” moment for the Champions.

Some university band members have said Champion, 26, died after taking part in an annual rite of passage called “Crossing Bus C,” an initiation process in which pledges attempt to run down the center aisle from the front door of the bus to the back while being punched, kicked and assaulted by senior members.

An autopsy found “extensive contusions of his chest, arms, shoulder and back,” as well as “evidence of crushing of areas of subcutaneous fat,” which is the fatty tissue directly under the skin.

The Champions filed a lawsuit this year accusing the bus company and the driver of negligence. An estimated 30 people were on the vehicle.

Fabulous Coach Lines President Ray Land said before the suit was filed that the company’s employees, who were not on the bus at the time, responded quickly after learning that there was an emergency, even following the ambulance transporting Champion to the hospital.

The school’s band director, meanwhile, asked for full reinstatement Wednesday.

An attorney for Julian White, placed on paid administrative leave shortly after Champion’s death, said White worked to root out hazing over 22 years as director.

“Dr. White remains disappointed that barely 48 hours after meeting with band members that Robert Champion was killed in an extreme, horrific and illegal act of bullying,” White’s attorney, Chuck Hobbs, said in a statement.

The death prompted the university board of trustees to approve an anti-hazing plan that includes an independent panel of experts to investigate.

“We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again,” President James H. Ammons and Solomon Badger, chairman of the trustees, said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Our hearts and our prayers are with the Champion family and the extended FAMU family as we all continue to deal with this tragedy.”

Lamar said Champion’s death was “nothing short of an American tragedy.”

“No one could have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death, an event that some, early on, mistakenly called a rite of passage,” he said.

CNN’s George Howell and Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.