By KYLE HIGHTOWER
(ORLANDO, Fla., AP) – Defendants in the hazing death of a Florida A&M drum major have been given the stiffer charge of manslaughter by the new prosecutor and a longer wait until their case goes to trial.
Recently sworn-in State Attorney Jeff Ashton added the second-degree felony count Monday for each of 10 band members who were charged last May with third-degree felony hazing in the 2011 death of 26-year-old Robert Champion.
Prosecutors also charged two new defendants with manslaughter Monday, though they had not yet been arrested. The manslaughter charge announced during a status hearing carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
The move could put pressure on the 12 defendants to seek plea bargains before the case makes it to a courtroom. A June trial date had previously been considered, but with more than 100 witnesses listed, Judge Marc Lubet said Monday that wasn’t feasible. A status hearing for the case has been set for August.
David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami, said it would be easier to prove felony hazing charges than manslaughter.
Weinstein also said it was not unusual for prosecutors to go ahead with a lesser charge while still gathering evidence and upgrade later.
“The easy way out is you charge them with felony hazing. That’s what they decided to do initially. You’re still holding someone accountable,” he said. “Now you have somebody new who comes in, takes a look at the evidence, and for a combination of reasons decides the manslaughter charge is warranted.”
Champion collapsed and died in Orlando in November 2011 after what prosecutors say was a savage beating during a hazing ritual. It happened on a bus parked in a hotel parking lot after FAMU played Bethune-Cookman in their annual rivalry football game.
Authorities said Champion had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back and died of internal bleeding. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers the drum major was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.
Christopher Chestnut, an attorney for Champion’s parents, said Pam and Robert Champion Sr. were pleased with Ashton’s decision to upgrade the charges.
“These charges are commensurate with the acts committed,” Chestnut said. “It sends the right message regarding zero-tolerance of hazing in the FAMU band.”
Prosecutors had originally filed felony hazing charges that only required they prove the defendants took part in hazing that resulted in death. It didn’t require them to prove who struck the fatal blows.
A spokesman for Ashton’s office said the prosecutor would not comment. Ashton, a 30-year veteran who was on the team that failed to convict Casey Anthony of murder in 2011, was sworn in as the area’s top prosecutor in January after beating his former boss in a hotly contested election. Former State Attorney Lawson Lamar was criticized for charging the defendants with felony hazing and not more serious counts.
Two former band members whose cases were resolved last year weren’t among those charged. Brian Jones and Ryan Dean have already been sentenced after pleading no-contest to third-degree felony hazing last year.
Jones was sentenced last October to six months of community control, which strictly limits his freedom with measures including frequent check-ins with probation officials. He also was given two years of probation and required to perform 200 hours of community service.
Dean was sentenced the following month and received four years of probation and 200 hours of community service.
Since Champion’s death, FAMU has made sweeping changes to fight hazing. The band remains suspended and there still has not been a time announced for its return. The university is also still searching to find a new director for the band.
FAMU’s board held an emergency meeting last month to discuss the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Champion family, though there were no final decisions made. Interim FAMU President Larry Robinson said the board was authorized to continue trying for a resolution with the family.
The Champions, who live in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Ga., claim university officials did not take enough action to stop hazing in the famed Marching 100 band before their son’s death. They rejected a previous offer to settle the case for $300,000.