Thirteen people are facing charges in the hazing-death of a Florida A & M University band drum major. Robert Champion died following a beating aboard a band bus in Orlando in November. Now as Lynn Hatter reports, the charges range from misdemeanors to felonies in connection to the case.
Six months after FAMU Band Drum Major Robert Champion died, State Attorney Lawson Lamar has filed charges against fellow band members implicated in his death. Hazing that results in a death is a 3rd degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to six years in prison. An autopsy done on Champion showed he suffered blunt force trauma to his body that caused internal bleeding and shock. Champion sustained the injuries in a hazing ritual that took place aboard a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel following a football game. It’s a ritual that State Attorney Lawson Lamar condemns.
“I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying. It’s bullying with a tradition. A tradition that we can’t bear in America.”
And to those familiar with the band, like alumna Crystal Finlay, say the news is painful, but not surprising.
“Regardless of watching it or hearing about it, every time the subject comes up it strikes a nerve because it’s a tragedy, it could have been avoided. Unfortunately, here is where we are now, and we just have to move forward.”
The Marching 100 band was suspended shortly after champion’s death, and its band director, Dr. Julian White, placed on administrative leave. White’s attorney, Chuck Hobbs’ says he hopes the charges will put an end to White’s legal limbo and bring a change within campus organizations.
“More often than not what I have learned is that the transgressors may be suspended for a time and then they’re allowed back in. So I think zero-tolerance is really going to have to become zero-tolerance.”
But a resolution to the case could still be months, even years away. State Attorney Lawson Lamar says he expects the case to be difficult to try. Florida A&M University officials aren’t talking to the media, but have released a statement saying they will, quote “move with all deliberate speed to initiate proceedings against those involved as appropriate and to the fullest extent lawfully possible.”
The Champion case spurred a closer look into the culture of a band that’s known nationally and internationally, but the organization, and people close to it, say this isn’t the kind of attention the Marching 100 usually gets. Band alumni like Jevon Evans, says watching the case, and other hazing-incidents within the organization unfold in the media has been hard.
“To spread joy and music and love in the stands of Bragg Stadium, the Georgia Dome and the Citrus Bowl, and then to not have that anymore, it hurts. Of course it hurts.”
Still, Evans says he’s grateful to see that the legal process is working, and that charges against those that contributed to Champion’s death have been filed.
Law enforcement officials say they aren’t releasing any names of those charged until they have been taken in to custody. Wednesday evening, Tallahassee officials announced the names of two of the 13 people facing charges. They are 23-year-old Caleb Jackson and 24-year-old Ricky Wills. Both are charged with felony hazing relating in death. If convicted, they face a maximum of six years in prison under Florida’s hazing laws.
Here is the full statement from Florida A&M University:
“Given the legal complexity, which surrounds this matter including on-going investigations and pending litigation, we will not be engaging in any interviews at this time. Upon further administrative and legal review of any and all documents publicly released or shared, Florida A&M University will move with all deliberate speed to initiate proceedings against those involved as appropriate and to the fullest extent lawfully possible.”
Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel
Here is the statement from FAMU Board of Trustees Chairman Solomon Badger:
“We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again. Our hearts and our prayers are with the Champion family and the extended FAMU family as we all continue to deal with this tragedy.”
There have been significant steps taken by FAMU in the past five months, with the singular goal to end hazing. They include:
• Indefinite suspension of the FAMU Marching Band and cancellation of 2012 FAMU Summer Band Camp for High School Students. The suspension is still in place and the status of the band is under review.
• Suspension of induction, enrollment, initiation, membership intake and recruitment for all student clubs and organizations until the Fall 2012.
• Amending FAMU anti-hazing regulations to include a 24-hour reporting rule for faculty, staff and students, as well as a provision against retaliation.
• Formation of an independent FAMU Anti-Hazing Committee comprised of noted national experts from relevant fields to provide valuable research and insight to the FAMU Board of Trustees on ways to end and prevent hazing.
• Announcement of Florida A&M University Anti-Hazing Research Initiative, a $50,000 grant for faculty members to conduct research that will study the nature and extent of hazing behaviors among campus organizations and groups.
• Multiple mandatory campus wide Anti-Hazing safety forums that have been attended by thousands of students and faculty, fostered important dialogue and encouraged students to sign an anti-hazing pledge.
• Real-time communication with FAMU constituents and supporters on zero tolerance for hazing and developments.
Here is the statement released by Chuck Hobbs, Attorney for FAMU Band Director Julian White:
TALLAHASSEE—Charges were filed today against 13 Florida A&M Univeristy (FAMU) students for the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion by Florida’s Ninth Circuit State Attorney in cooperation with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Dr. White continues to grieve the loss of his former student, a music production major whom he had planned to appoint head drum major for next fall’s marching season. Various news reports have indicated that Champion allegedly submitted to an illegal ritual, but was beaten more severely because of his stance against hazing and because of his sexuality.
The student arrests made to date regarding band hazing stemmed from Dr. White’s reporting the incidents to authorities. He also reported two music faculty members as soon as he was made aware of their having hosted hazing session in a home belonging to one of the professors. Although students who have been arrested for hazing incidents have been allowed to return to campus, White remains on paid administrative leave.
"Dr. White continues to pray for the family of Robert Champion and hopes that that the arrests that were announced today will help them to learn more about what happened on the night their son was killed last November and in some small way, provide some sense of relief from the anguish that they have experienced since that time."
"Now that arrests have been made and the criminal investigation into the hazing that led to Robert Champion's death has been concluded, it is our position that President Ammons and/or the Board of Trustees should finally consider our petition to have Dr. White fully reinstated as Director of Bands and Chair of the Music Department at Florida A&M University. We maintain that the evidence we provided following Dr. White's initial termination for alleged incompetence in reporting hazing— is clearly unfounded by the record evidence. Most of the decisive actions that the university has taken since Robert Champion's tragic death were largely based on Dr. White's reporting both known and alleged incidents of hazing.”
“Dr. White worked tirelessly to root out hazing in all forms over the past 22 years as director of bands, and any so-called rituals, including Bus C, were expressly forbidden. 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. Dr. White applauds law enforcement for taking the deliberate steps necessary to bring this case to justice, and is relieved that those responsible for Robert’s death will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”