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Sheriff: Charges coming in Fla. hazing death

By Gary Fineout and Mike Schneider
Associated Press / May 1, 2012
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—At least five people will face criminal charges in the hazing death of a Florida A&M University drum major aboard a band bus in Orlando last fall, authorities said Tuesday.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told The Associated Press that multiple defendants will be charged in 26-year-old Robert Champion's death, although he refused to say what the charges are.

Prosecutors have built five cases against defendants with charges ranging from misdemeanors to felony charges, said Danielle Tavernier, a spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office in Orlando. She refused to specify the charges pending an announcement by prosecutors on Wednesday.

Prosecutors sometime cluster defendants by case, meaning the number of defendants could be higher than five, said Bob Dekle, a University of Florida law professor.

The pending charges will bring more scrutiny to a culture of hazing at FAMU and other schools. Champion's death was ruled a homicide by medical examiners, and the case has jeopardized the future of FAMU's legendary marching band and shaken the school's Tallahassee campus.

"The family's position is if indeed there are charges tomorrow, it's been a long time in coming," Christopher Chestnut, an attorney for Champion's parents, said Tuesday evening. "It is bittersweet. Obviously it's comforting to know that someone will be held accountable for Robert's murder, but it's also disconcerting to think of the impact of the future of these students. This is just unfortunate all the way around."

Chestnut said family members are disappointed that authorities didn't give them enough advance notice to travel from Georgia to Florida to attend a press conference Wednesday to announce the results of the investigation. But he said the family is also "thankful there is some movement on this case after five months of delay."

No arrests had been made by Tuesday afternoon. Both Demings, attending a meeting in Tallahassee, and Tavernier, in Orlando, said the arrests would likely take place in multiple jurisdictions.

The medical examiner's office in Orlando found last year that Champion had bruises to his chest, arms, shoulder and back and internal bleeding that caused him to go into shock, which killed him.

Detectives say Champion was hazed on Nov. 19 by other band members on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel, following a performance. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers that Champion was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus. Hazing that involves bodily harm is a third-degree felony in Florida.

Champion's parents have sued the company that owns the bus where the hazing took place. In a civil suit, Champion's family alleges that the bus driver stood guard outside the bus while the hazing took place. The bus company owner initially said the bus driver was helping other band members with their equipment when the hazing took place.

Witnesses in the Champion case have told his parents he might have been targeted because he opposed the culture of hazing they say has long existed in the band, the parents' attorney has said. It has also been suggested to them that Champion was targeted because he was gay and a candidate for chief drum major.

In a January interview with the AP, Champion's parents dismissed the notion that his sexual orientation brought on the attack, which was to their knowledge the first time he'd ever been hazed.

"The main reason that we heard is because he was against hazing, and he was totally against it," Champion's father, Robert Champion Sr. of Decatur, Ga., said in an interview.

FAMU has suspended the band and launched a task force to recommend steps it could take to curtail hazing.

Three FAMU band members were arrested in the Oct. 31 beating of a female band member whose thigh was broken.

And on Tuesday, a lawyer for two FAMU music professors who allegedly were present during the unrelated hazing of band fraternity pledges in early 2010 said they have been forced out.

Both faculty members had been placed on paid administrative leave in late March after a Tallahassee Police Department report quoted witnesses as saying they were on hand when the hazing occurred at the home of one of the professors.

Diron Holloway, the band's director of saxophones, and Anthony Simons, an assistant professor of music, resigned last week after receiving notices that they had 10 days to contest their impending dismissals, said attorney Mutaqee Akbar.

"They both decided to resign from the university and pursue other career opportunities," Akbar said.

He said no one from the school discussed the allegations with them.

Both want to remain in education but plan no further action related to their employment at Florida A&M, Akbar said.

The police report said pledges to the Kappa Kappa Psi band fraternity were slapped on the neck and back and may have been paddled in early 2010. It listed both faculty members as suspects but said no charges were filed because a two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanor offenses had passed.

The university issued a statement from its general counsel, Avery McKnight, saying only that "appropriate employment actions" have been taken against the professors.

The allegations were reported to campus police last November, two days after Champion's death.

There's a three-year statute of limitations for felony hazing but such cases require proof of great bodily harm. There was no evidence of such injuries in the early 2010 case.

City police blamed a lengthy delay in launching the investigation because they learned of the allegations only through media reports on Jan. 20, two months after campus police had been notified.

A FAMU police report indicated the matter was referred to city police because the alleged hazing happened off campus. Tallahassee police, though, said they had no record of the case being sent to them.

Hazing cases in marching bands have cropped up over the years, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the marching band is coveted and the bands are revered almost as much as the sports teams. In 2008, two first-year French horn players in Southern University's marching band had to be hospitalized after a beating. A year later, 20 members of Jackson State University's band were suspended after being accused of hazing.

In 2001, FAMU band member Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala, Fla., said he was paddled around 300 times, sending him to the hospital and leaving him physically and emotionally scarred.

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Associated Press writers Schneider in Orlando, Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee and Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report

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