Prosecutors have filed charges against 13 people accused of taking part in the beating death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion after the marching band’s performance at the Florida Classic football game in Orlando last fall.
Of the 13 defendants, 11 face felony hazing charges, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar said Wednesday. Lamar said more than 20 misdemeanor charges also were being filed, including at least some involving “different victims who were not seriously injured.”
In a news conference announcing the charges Wednesday, Lamar called Champion’s death following an attack aboard a charter bus on Nov. 19 “nothing short of an American tragedy.”
“I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying,” Lamar said. “It’s bullying with a tradition — a tradition that we cannot bear in America.”
Later in the day, authorities announced the arrests of two of those charged with felony hazing — Caleb Jackson, 23, and Rikki Wills, 24, a FAMU drum major last fall. They were booked in the Leon County jail in Tallahassee. The jail website shows Jackson has been previously booked on several charges, including aggravated battery.
The names of others charged will not be released until they have been arrested. Authorities would not say whether all defendants are FAMU students, but Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Champion was “beaten severely by fellow band members.”
The attorney for the Champion family, Christopher Chestnut, said Champion’s parents were “very disappointed” because they had hoped for more serious charges.
“Their son is dead. He was beaten to death on a bus — that constitutes murder,” Chestnut said.
Champion, 26, was punched, kicked and suffocated by his fellow band members, according to a wrongful death lawsuit Chestnut filed in February against the charter-bus company and bus driver. Chestnut has said that more than 20 people were onboard the bus the night Champion was hazed.
Lamar agreed that Champion was “beaten to death on that bus,” referring to a medical examiner’s report citing “blunt force trauma sustained during the hazing incident” that resulted in hemorrhaging, shock and death.
But he stressed what other legal authorities have already said: The Champion case is complex because of the number of defendants. Prosecution of the case, much like the investigation, will be labor intensive and time consuming, he said.
Hazing charges also will be easier to prove than murder or manslaughter, Lamar said, pointing out that the state will have to prove only two things: participation in hazing and that a death occurred.
While the Champions were hoping for more ambitious charges, Chestnut said they were relieved to see the case moving forward.
The pace of the investigation had left them frustrated — even more so as they learned that Tallahassee police made arrests in unrelated hazing incidents involving members of FAMU’s Marching 100. A total of seven FAMU students were charged with either felony or misdemeanor hazing in December and January.
On Dec. 12, three FAMU students were arrested on felony hazing charges after a freshman was beaten so severely that her leg was broken. Two of the three students also were charged with felony battery.
Clarinetist Bria Hunter, who has since left the university and given up a giving up an $82,000 scholarship, told authorities on Nov. 7 that she was repeatedly punched on the thighs and hit with a metal ruler during initiation rituals to join the “Red Dawg Order,” which comprises band members from Georgia.
Prosecutors have been mulling possible charges in Champion’s death since late March, when investigators with the Orange Sheriff’s Office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement turned over their findings to prosecutors.
Each of the 11 charged with felony hazing also faces two charges of misdemeanor hazing. Two other defendants also face one count each of misdemeanor hazing.
FAMU President James Ammons and the chairman of the school’s board of trustees, Solomon Badger, released a joint statement stressing that FAMU has taken “significant steps” in recent months to end hazing. “We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again,” they said.
The band remains suspended, with no decision yet as to whether it will perform in the fall.
An attorney for longtime band director Julian White, who has been on paid leave since Champion’s death, said White’s cooperation helped in other FAMU hazing investigations.
White is without fault in Champion’s death and should be reinstated, attorney Chuck Hobbs said. “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,” Hobbs said in a prepared statement.
Lamar indicated that more charges could follow, but he would not elaborate.
He also praised FAMU as being a “fine university” with “fine traditions.”
“But there are some we would not want to acknowledge,” Lamar said.