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Hazing Trial Starts for 4 FAMU Band Members

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Don Juan Moore
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida A & M University's Marching 100 had played at a Super Bowl and before U.S. presidents. But one of the nation's most-celebrated marching bands had a dark secret: members were occasionally beaten with mallets, fists and drumsticks in a hazing initiation known as "crossing" Bus C.

The trial of four band members is scheduled to start today on charges of felony hazing and manslaughter, almost three years after drum major Robert Champion died from being beaten during that ritual. His death shone a spotlight on hazing at FAMU and other colleges, caused the band to be suspended for over a year and contributed to the resignation of FAMU's president.

Hours after a football game in Orlando in November 2011, band members boarded Bus C parked outside a hotel. They pummeled Champion, 26, and two other band members as they tried to wade their way through a pounding gauntlet of fists, drumsticks and mallets from the front to the back of the bus.

After making it to the back, Champion vomited and complained of trouble breathing. He soon fell unconscious and couldn't be revived. He died from hemorrhagic shock and his autopsy showed extensive internal bleeding.

Fifteen former band members originally were charged with manslaughter and hazing in the death of Champion, of Decatur, Georgia. All but the four remaining defendants have had their cases settled, and several of them will be called as witnesses to describe what happened on the bus.

Darryl Cearnel, Aaron Golson, Benjamin McNamee and Dante Martin have pleaded not guilty. But a late challenge by the attorneys for Cearnel, Golson and McNamee about the inclusion of an additional hazing charge could delay trials for those defendants. Once it begins, the trial could last two weeks.

State Attorney Jeff Ashton said he wants jurors to learn about the history of hazing in FAMU's marching band so they understand that what happened on the bus was a "consistent pattern."

Besides "crossing Bus C," jurors likely will learn about other hazing rituals by band members. Those include "the hot seat," when band members sit in bus seats with heads between legs as other band members beat them, as well as "prepping" when a shirtless band member is slapped on the back and chest.

"They got on the bus for one thing and that is to break the law," Ashton said at a recent hearing. "The jury has to understand this wasn't an isolated incident, that these four defendants knew what they were doing and that they were breaking the law."

Defense attorneys have challenged Florida's anti-hazing law, claiming that statute is so vague that what happened on the band bus can be considered a competition, not hazing.

"The hazing statute, the way it is written is crazy," Dino Michaels, one of the attorneys for Martin, said at a recent pretrial hearing.

Judge Rene Roche denied a defense motion asking that the hazing statute be ruled unconstitutional, but she reached a compromise with defense attorneys and Ashton on whether witnesses can say the word "hazing" during the trial. The judge ruled witnesses could use the word "hazing" if they had previously read the statute defining it, such as in the anti-hazing pledges FAMU band members had to sign even before Champion's death.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed no band members have said in depositions that Champion's sexual orientation played a role in the hazing, so the fact that he was gay won't be brought up during the trial.

Although the trial start is set to start today, there is a chance it could be delayed. Defense attorneys have objected to a change in the criminal complaint that added two additional charges of hazing. They claim they weren't given the opportunity to question witnesses about those charges during depositions. The judge planned to make a ruling by Monday, when she also will take up defense motions asking that information from the autopsy and some of the testimony from the coroner be excluded.

Defense attorneys say Champion's body may have been tampered with when it left the custody of the medical examiner's office so organs could be harvested. They also say the coroner uses analogies about how Champion died that could be misconstrued by jurors.